Photo by Hays Collins

By Robert Wilson

       CLINTON – For the majority of the season, Jackson Academy’s boys basketball team has started games like a Ferrari, getting from zero to high speeds in the first quarter.

       But Wednesday night, Madison-Ridgeland Academy took on the role as an Italian sports car and shifted into fifth gear very quickly, shooting a sizzling 63.6 percent from the field and 100 percent from 3-point range while JA was stuck in neutral, and its engine sputtering at best.

       The result was a 10-point MRA lead, and it appeared MRA coach Richard Duease – the winningest basketball coach in Mississippi history and second winningest active boys basketball coach in the country – was on his way to winning his 16th MAIS Overall championship.

       That is, until JA cranked up and pushed the gas pedal to the floor.

       JA – which missed its first seven 3-point attempts – bounced back from its rocky start to defeat MRA 70-59 to win its first Overall boys title since 2006 before an estimated 2,500 at here Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum/Mike Jones Court.

       JA finished with a 36-1 record and its 22nd consecutive victory. It is the best record in school history, beating out the 36-2 mark in Overall championship season of 1994-1995.

       MRA – which started the season with a 24-0 record – finished 33-6 and lost to JA for the third time in as many meetings this season.

       MRA had gotten off to very slow starts in two games in the past few weeks against Presbyterian Christian School in the third place game of the Class 6A state tournament (down 20-4 after one quarter) and against Jackson Prep in the quarterfinals game of the Overall (down 19-1 late in the first quarter), but were able to bounce back and win.

       So Duease emphasized getting off to a quick start and being aggressive the Patriots were, especially sophomore guard Will Bizot, whose father, Kenny, is the athletic director at Mississippi College and is comfortable shooting in this gym. Bizot led his team’s charge in the opening quarter, making 10 of his 18 points and 3 of 3 from 3-point range in the first 6 minutes.

       “When you play someone twice you know there is a natural barrier there physicallhotly,” second-year JA coach Jesse Taylor said. “We talked about it. MRA was going to come out with some superpowers. (MRA’s 6-foot-6 junior) Ashton (Magee) is going to come out with superpowers. (MRA senior guard) Sam (Hailey) is going to be able to throw it in. It’s going to be like the ocean. Turns out it was Bizot. So we don’t wax and wang with the flow of the game. We stay even keel. And to these guys’ credit, we did that.”

       “We talked to the team about coming out strong and it was a combination of us making shots and JA missing them,” Duease said. “But they started making shots and we changed our defense and they keep making shots.

       “We aren’t going to use not having (junior guard and starter) Jas (Smith, out with a hamstring injury) as an excuse because we have had several out for many games this year and we have had a next man up mentality.

       “Will got hot again. He made seven 3s in the first Overall game and three in the second. He’s only going to get better.

       “Give JA credit. They had depth and speed and shooting ability this year. And their coach did a great job with them. They played hard all the time and were very intense. They deserved to win and had a great season. (Sophomore guard) Mason (Williams) scored 27 on us the first time we played them so we knew he could score as well as (junior guard) Mike (Williams). Mike made a couple from 26 feet. He’s hard to stop.”

       JA’s talented duo of Mike and Mason Williams – sons of former NBA champion and NBA all-star and Jackson State men’s basketball coach Mo Williams – ignited the Raiders’ comeback in the second quarter. Mason hit a 3-pointer, had a dunk and another 3-pointer, then Mike scored four points on a 12-5 run. The Williams brothers combined for 17 points in the second quarter as JA outscored MRA 24-12 to take a 33-31 halftime lead.

       JA continued its torrid defensive pressure and transition scoring success in third quarter, outscoring MRA 23-12 to take a commanding 56-43 advantage.

       Mason finished with 23 points, 5 of 9 from 3-point range, with 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assist. Mike finished with 18 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal. Junior guard Caleb Gaitor had 11 points and a team-high six assists. Sophomore guard Marcus Goodloe had 10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 20 minutes off the bench.

“After going down early in the first quarter, I knew they gave us their best shot,” Mike Williams said. “So I told my team, we are ok. It’s a long game. When we calmed down, we were able to run and Mason getting a dunk shifted the momentum completely and allowed us to change the narrative going into halftime, eventually taking care of business in the end.”

       “These guys have bought into it each and every day. The preparation, the long practices, the breakdown of the film. They bought in and they deserve this,” Taylor said. “Mason kept it us it early. (JA’s only senior starter, 6-2 Fisher Waldrop) Fish answered the call. I mean, he’s guarding a future NBA player (6-9 eighth-grader EJ Dampier). He outweighs him, is a foot taller and Fish battled him because he loves this school. He played for his team. “

“Winning this feels great,” said Mike Williams, who finished with a season scoring average of 18.8 points per game, second only in school history to Hastings Puckett (who averaged 22.8 points per game in the 1994-1995 season and led JA to its second consecutive Overall title). “I loved the work ethic we put in and it feels like it paid off. But it’s back to the offseason grind. I have to be a better player come next year.”

       Duease – who has won 1,834 games (1,242 boys and 592 girls) in his 49th season, 42 at MRA – was denied his 13th boys Overall title to go along with three girls Overall crowns. But the future is bright as Duease enters his 50th season next year. Eight of his top 10 players return, including Division I prospects Magee, rated one of the top players in the country in his class, and Dampier, rated the No. 1 player in the country in his class and son of former NBA star and MRA assistant coach Erick Dampier. Dampier had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocked shots against JA.

       “We lost a lot of points from last year in (Mississippi’s all-time leading scorer and Mississippi State freshman) Josh Hubbard and (MRA’s second leading scorer and MSU freshman) Harrison Alexander from last year’s team and I was very pleased with our success this year,” Duease said. “Sam and Matthew (Latham), our two seniors, did a great job being leaders and should be given a lot of credit for our good team chemistry. We have a lot returning and I’m excited about the future of our program. We have several guys who didn’t play much this year who are very good players.”

       Hailey, a Birmingham Southern commitment, finished with 11 points and six assists and had an outstanding senior season, leading his team in scoring and assists.

       “We got off to a great start, but ultimately at the end of the day it really hurt not having Jas,” Hailey said. “I don’t think we subbed the whole first half and in the second half, we just ran out of gas. We gave it all we had, just came up short in the end. I’m proud of our team’s effort and ability to respond to adversity, which we showed all year. I wouldn’t trade anything this team for the world.”