Photo by Chris Todd

By Robert Wilson

CLINTON – Clinton Christian Academy senior point guard KJ Sykes has been starting for Coach Josh Zeitz since the seventh grade so when Madison-Ridgeland Academy tied the game with 10 seconds to play, Zietz didn’t call timeout but trusted Sykes to make the right play.

The 5-foot-8 Sykes came through, hitting an 8-footer from the right baseline with 5 seconds to play to give MAIS Class 4A CCA an 83-81 victory over 6A MRA in a battle between two of the best teams in Mississippi Saturday night before an estimated 500 at CCA’s Athletic and Performing Arts Center.

Although Sykes gave CCA the lead, MRA senior point guard and Ole Miss signee Josh Hubbard almost won the game as his 23-foot, 3-point attempt from right in front of the MRA bench hit both sides of the rim before coming out at the buzzer.

The game was played at a frantic pace and saw dozens of outstanding offensive moves and shots from both teams.

Said Zeitz: “It was like a college basketball game. There were so many great moves by both teams made by very talented players. To score a combined 164 points in 32 minutes was incredible.”

CCA improved to 14-3 and won its sixth game in a row. The Warriors avenged a 60-50 loss to MRA on Nov. 1. CCA’s other two losses are to MAIS 6A teams Jackson Academy and Presbyterian Christian.

MRA – which played without second-leading scorer and Division I prospect Harrison Alexander in the second half due to a sprained ankle – dropped to 15-4 and ended a six-game winning streak. MRA’s other three losses were to MHSAA Class 6A Gulfport and Starkville and to defending Tennessee powerhouse Bartlett High.

Zeitz and Sykes had been through this situation before. After MRA’s Canaan Yates made a rebound shot for an 81-81 tie, Sykes knew what to do.

“We work on it in practice for moments like these,” Sykes said. “My teammates and coach trust me with the ball to make the right play in order for us to win in that situation. I was feeling it and was able to get a shot up and it went down.”

“KJ can get up the floor in 3.5 seconds,” Zeitz said. “He knows what to do. We usually practice that twice a week, with 10 seconds to go and with 5 seconds to go, what to do in those situations. I was happy for KJ to put in that last shot.”

CCA had three players with 20 or more points. Junior guard Trey Alexander had 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, Sykes had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and 6-1 junior LJ Jones had 20 points, including five 3-pointers, and 5 rebounds. Alexander came out of the game briefly midway through the third quarter because of leg cramps, but after getting some pickle juice he went back into the game. Sykes came out of the game briefly as well in the third quarter after getting hit in the head on a drive to the basket but returned after a few minutes.

“That was a great team win against a great MRA team,” Zeitz said. “We had four kids in double figures (junior guard and Clinton High transfer KJ Lambert had 13 points in addition to Alexander, Sykes and Jones in double figures) shared the ball on offense. I told my guys that it would a game of runs and to just keep competing. We were down 12 in the first quarter, but we didn’t flinch. That was a high-level game with few turnovers. We have a ton of respect for MRA, so I am incredible proud of my guys.”

“We were able to pull it out because we stuck together when it got tough and made the plays that were needed for us to win,” Sykes said. “Each and every player stepped up when the team needed them. That’s what makes this team special.”

The 5-11 Hubbard – ranked as the No. 1 overall player in Mississippi and No. 69 overall player in country and the No. 17 point guard in the country on ESPN’s 2023 Top 100 – scored a career-high 47 points, including six 3-pointers, and 14 points in the fourth quarter. Hubbard’s previous high was when he scored 46 points against MHSAA Class 6A Gulfport as a freshman when he made nine 3-pointers, including two in the last 17 seconds to win the game.

Hubbard, the PriorityOne Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Player of the Year last season, is the MAIS career scoring leader. He came into Saturday averaging 26.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists this season.

MRA’s Ashton Magee, a 6-6 sophomore forward and transfer from South Jones High, had 13 points. Magee – who is ranked No. 34 in the country in the Class of 2025 by and has offers from Ole Miss and Southern Miss – was making only his second start of the season after having a knee injury earlier this year. Magee was averaging 7.2 points and 6 rebounds in six games before Saturday.

 Yates, a 6-3 senior forward, had 12 points off the bench.

MRA’s Alexander, a 6-6 junior guard, sprained his ankle in the first few minutes of the first quarter. He sat out for several minutes, but came back in later in the first half, but wasn’t effective. Alexander, who came in averaging 17.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, scored only 2 points. He sat at the end of the bench with an ice pack on his ankle in the second half.

The CCA victory denied MRA coach Richard Duease – the winningest active high school basketball coach the country – to add to his win total. Duease has won 1,782 overall games (1,190 boys and 592 girls, 40 state championships and 15 Overall titles (13 boys and two girls) in his 48th season, 41st at MRA.

“Clinton Christian has four guys that can stroke it pretty good,” Duease said. “We knew that. We got down 10 going into the fourth quarter. We fought back and had a chance to win the game without Harrison. All the guys stepped up, next man up. Ashton is a big-time player. He is just now getting his feet under him. He’s going to be a big-time player for the next two years. He’s tough to stop. They have a good team, and we will see them again.”

“It was a great game for us to play against a team like that,” Hubbard said. “Much respect to Coach Zeitz and his players. We both fought to the end, and I had a chance to end it at the buzzer, but it went in and out. Trey and KJ carried their team on both ends of the court. We played good as a team but got outplayed today.”

CCA and MRA both don’t play again until next Friday in the BA$$A Holiday Invitational at Mississippi College in Clinton. CCA plays MHSAA Class 5A Callaway at 4 p.m. and MRA plays MHSAA Class 4A Yazoo City at 6 p.m.