MADISON – Jackson Academy swept MRA during the regular season, including an 18-point victory earlier this month.
On Saturday night, with the AAAA-Division I State Championship on the line, the Patriots returned the favor, zooming past the Raiders 57-39 inside the friendly and loud, make that very loud, confines of the Du Dome.
Ironically, that's the identical score from that aforementioned Feb. 5 game in northeast Jackson
- only flipped. That's right, 57-39. A 36-point turnaround in a span of nineteen days. Who would have thought it? Not many, if any. The Patriots have gone from a team at times splintered by individualism and doomed to fail to a cohesive, championship unit in a matter of a couple of weeks. What a transformation it has been, a somewhat miraculous one.
Perhaps that explains the surprise guest appearance made by none other than Moses, and his subsequent parting of the sea of raucous, red-clad students a few minutes into the second quarter. While the student support in the bleachers was certainly next level, so too was the Patriots' play on the court. Josh Hubbard (14), D.H. Dew (12) and Phillip Hughes (11) helped lead MRA to the promised land, combining for 37 points. The Patriots led from start to finish, building as much as a 23-point cushion early in the fourth quarter en route to their fifth consecutive State championship.
"We knew the Lord was with us," joked longtime MRA coach Richard Duease.
Turns out, Duease proved prophetic as his team delivered on the promise he made to them way back on Nov. 28.
"He gathered us up that day and told us that we were going to win the state championship," MRA junior Josh Thomas said. "I'm not sure how many of us believed him at the time, but he was right."
The scene was a familiar one come late Saturday night. As soon as the final horn sounded, the MRA players rushed the court to celebrate yet another championship. After receiving their individual medallions near midcourt, they raised the blue trophy then celebrated their achievement with their adoring peers.
The students proved to be an invaluable sixth man of sorts this week, helping carry MRA to wins over Parklane, top-seeded PCS and second-seeded JA. The Patriots won those three games on their home court by an average margin of nearly 18 points per game, avenging a pair of losses to both JA and PCS along the way.
The atmosphere was electric, evoking memories of yesteryear when this gym used to be packed for such rival games on a regular basis.
"The student section played a huge role in the game," MRA senior Hamp Hudnall said. "That's the best student support I've ever seen."
Added Dew: "They were amazing. They really helped propel us to the win."
Celebrating titles is seemingly a rite of passage for MRA this time of year. Or so it seems. Duease has now won a jaw-dropping 30 State championships in his 36-year tenure at the private school, and has guided his team to the Overall Tournament 33 times in those 36 years. The Patriots have won 12 Overall titles under Duease, including the last three, four of the last five, nine of the last 12 and 10 of the last 14.
MRA begins its quest for a 13th gold ball on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. inside Mississippi College's A.E. Wood Colisuem in Clinton. The Patriots, who received a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed in AAAA-Division I, will face the winner of Monday's 5:45 opening round game pitting Hillcrest vs. Copiah.
"The past two weeks we've been playing MRA basketball and it's been a lot of fun," Hudnall said.
That hasn't always been the case this season. The tradition-rich Patriots, facing life without six of the top seven players including all five starters from last year's team, struggled mightily at times. They were 8-7 in late December, 14-12 in late January, showing no real signs of feasible improvement. The downfall of a dynasty, which many predicted prior to the start of the season, was in full effect.
The possibility of a losing season loomed large. Another 20-win season seemed doubtful. There was little to no talk of championships, other than chatter about which school other than MRA was going to win State this year.
Normalcy would eventually return, it just took a while.
After losing to JA a second time, MRA, with a guard-heavy roster littered with underclassmen, has since won five of its last six. Strangely enough, Dew traces the turnaround to the lone loss during that stretch – a 67-60 setback at PCS.
"That's when I sensed things started to change for us," Dew said. Even though we lost, our attitudes changed. We saw how good we could be if we played like we played that night, and we started believing as a team that we could win it all. We've got to stay confident, but also focused because we have a huge week ahead of us if we want a repeat of this past week and the last few years."
Whether MRA can carry the newfound confidence and success into this week's Overall remains to be seen. No doubt, though, the Patriots have caught fire at the right time. Speaking of catching fire, Dew did just that in the third and fourth quarters on Saturday, draining four 3-pointers in the second half to put the game on ice.
"I hit the first one, and I started feeling it after that," Dew said. "It was fun. Hub did a great job of scoring for us in the first half, then I was able to get it going in the second half."
All 12 of Dew's points came in the second half. Meanwhile, Hubbard, an 8th-grader, scored 12 of his game-high 14 in the first half. He, like everyone else in the building, took notice of Dew's hot hand.
"I knew DH was hot, so I was doing my best to get him the ball," Hubbard said.
It's that type of unselfishness that has helped MRA turn the proverbial corner late in the year. The Patriots have also tightened the screws on the defensive end, and the tandem of Russ Sceroler and Brendan Butler have emerged on the interior, providing a presence in the paint that was missing earlier in the year. The duo played a combined 28 minutes in Saturday's win, contributing five points and six rebounds.
"I knew this season that I was a role player who was being counted on to give a few good minutes per game," Butler said. "I knew that my role was to bring physicality, hustle, and most importantly to make life hard for the other team's post player. It was fun to see us all come together and play like we did these past few games."
The insertion of Sceroler into the starting lineup was one of the changes Duease made recently. Moving Dew back to the point guard position was another. Both moves have proven beneficiary. And having home court for the State tournament certainly didn't hurt. Other than that, it's solely been a matter of the players buying into what Duease – Mississippi's all-time winningest boys basketball coach (1,077 wins) – has been preaching all year.
The Patriots have simply been playing harder, playing smarter, and playing more together as a team.
"We've found another gear," said Duease, who saw his team improve to 22-14 with its fourth straight win. "The guys are playing really well right now. It's been a joy to watch. It's like I told them after the game, I don't know that I've ever been prouder of a team than I am of this one, because nobody expected us to win it this year. Everybody had written us off."
MRA had 11 assists on 22 made field goals and drained six 3-pointers. Defensively, it forced 13 turnovers, collected six steals and scored 15 points off turnovers. The Patriots had 12 fast break points and seven second chance points. Meanwhile, JA shot just 29 percent from the floor and didn't get a made 3-pointer from any of its starters. The Raiders got 14 3-pointers from its starters in their two previous wins over the Patriots.
"We were able to control the pace of the game, and I think that really played a big factor in the outcome," Dew said. "We played really hard and really fast and they couldn't keep up with us."
Ryan Kitchens, the forgotten starter at times, also stepped up in the second half, scoring all nine of his points, including a 3-pointer from the corner early in the third quarter to help spark the Patriots' runaway. Kitchens, along with Hubbard, Dew and Hughes were named to the All-Tournament team.
The MRA girls also won on Saturday, outlasting Parklane 51-40 in double overtime in the consolation game. Thanks in large part to Rivers Futral's game-high 26 points, the Lady Patriots will be going to Overall for the third straight year and eighth time in the last nine.
"Rivers certainly stepped up big for us, especially late in game and in the overtimes when we needed her the most," veteran MRA coach Stephen Force said.
Futral, a junior guard, converted a driving layup in the waning seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime, then did the same again near the end of the first overtime to send the game into double overtime. After trailing most of the game, and struggling to make shots, the Lady Patriots were able to seize control in the second overtime against a gassed Parklane squad.
"The whole game was very frustrating," said Futral, who made the All-Tournament team. "We couldn't make any shots the game before (in Friday's loss to Jackson Prep), and then the same thing was happening to us again. We kept shooting, and fortunately we were able to make enough shots to win. We weren't going to give up. We wanted to keep our season going . . . we wanted it for each other."
MRA (28-8) will face AAA No. 1 seed Leake on Tuesday at 5:45. Leake defeated the Lady Patriots 48-39 in the season-opener.