By Robert Wilson

​There will be an all-Rankin County championship game for the first time in MSHAA’s largest classification in boys basketball Saturday at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.

​Brandon meets its Rankin County rival Northwest Rankin for the Class 6A state championship at 7 p.m. (televised on MEtv and broadcasted on 105.9 FM).

​The schools are 10 miles apart – Brandon is on Highway 18 and Northwest Rankin on Highway 25 – and students, coaches, teachers, parents, and alumni know each other, play on other teams together, go eat together, socialize together and go to church together. There areeven brothers on each basketball team. Davoin James plays on the Northwest Rankin varsity and his younger brother Damaris James plays on Brandon’s freshman team.

​All those relationships will be put aside for about an hour and half – enough to play four eight-minute quarters – as the two teams battle for the state title.

​Brandon has won one state boys basketball championship in school history. Marc Dukes – a longtime high school and college coach and now radio analyst for Ole Miss men’s basketball – was a junior and the team’s leading scorer and rebounder on Brandon’s Class A state championship team in 1968. The Bulldogs, coached by Mike Ponder, also finished runner-up in 1967. Brandon has reached the state title game one more time, losing to Winona for the Class A championship in 1975.

​Northwest Rankin, which was opened in 1981, has never won a state championship in boys basketball. The Cougars, coached by Archie Carlyle, lost to South Pike for the Class 4A state championship in 1990.

​The two teams come into the game with similar records. Brandon is 26-7 and Northwest Rankin is 25-8.

​The teams have played twice this season, with Brandon winning both games, 63-49 Nov. 12 at Northwest Rankin, and 49-45 Dec. 16 at Brandon. Brandon defeated Northwest Rankin in all three meetings last year, including a 65-50 victory last year in the 6A state quarterfinals. Northwest Rankin hasn’t won in the series since a 71-66 win in 2020-2021 at Brandon.

​Brandon has a 22-3 record against Northwest Rankin in the series for the past 10 seasons and won 12 straight games from 2013-2014 to 2016-2017.

​Brandon, under coach Fred Barnes, has been the more successful program. Barnes has won 426 games in his 19 seasons at Brandon. He won No. 400 when his Bulldogs eliminated Northwest Rankin last season. The win was Brandon’s 16th straight before losing to Clinton in the semifinals. Barnes has taken Brandon to seven trips to the Mississippi Coliseum. He had a losing season in his first season at Brandon, then won 20 or more in each of the next 14 seasons. He was a junior high coach at McComb for five seasons before coming to Brandon. Barnes’ father (Fred Barnes) was a coach and principal for 49 years in Collins.

​“It should be an electric atmosphere,” Barnes said. “Both teams are very familiar with each other. A lot of people from these two communities go to the same churches and shop are the same stores. Not to mention that a lot of fans will probably have family members on both teams. It’s always exciting to play a crosstown rival, but it’s even sweeter with a gold ball on the line.”

​Northwest Rankin coach Joshua Luckett has gradually built the Cougar program since he came to the Rankin County school six seasons ago. The Carthage High, East Central Community College and Belhaven graduate coached at Union High for three years before coming to Northwest Rankin. He finished 22-8 last season and reached the quarterfinal round and then surpassed that mark this season.

“These opportunities don’t come often so it’s important to make the best of it,” Luckett said. “Our motto this year has been Big House or bust. Now, we’re here and to see things coming full circle is amazing. I wouldn’t want it any other way than playing our county rival for the state title. We haven’t forgotten how our season ended las year. We are looking forward to the rematch and seeing Rankin County pack the Big House. It’s going to be a good one.”

​Both teams are led by players on the PriorityOneBank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 team.

​Brandon is led by 6-foot-5 senior guard Marcel Bridges, who averages 17.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season. Northwest Rankin is led by 6-3 senior forward Levionne Lindsey, who averages 18 points and 7 rebounds per game this season. Both Bridges and Lindsey have offers from numerous community colleges in Mississippi.