The MHSAA State Championships for basketball take place this week, bringing yellow school buses from all over the state to the Mississippi Coliseum and bringing passion play after passion play to fans lucky enough to attend.
You see excesses of agony and ecstasy, tears of joy and tears of despair – and you sometimes see the unexpected.
Take Wednesday afternoon’s State Class 3A semifinal game that matched undefeated and rarely challenged Yazoo County against traditional hoops powerhouse Velma Jackson. The Yazoo Panthers, coached by former Ole Miss great Rahim Lockhart, came to Jackson with a perfect 30-0 record, bidding to become only the second boys team since 1986 to go through a championship season undefeated. Velma Jackson came in with a 23-6 record.
So, clearly, the undefeated team would make short work of the team with six defeats, right? Oh no, not right at all.
Velma Jackson, the school of those talented Weatherspoon brothers at Mississippi State and four state championships in the past six years, took control in the second quarter and knocked off Yazoo 72-61. Velma Jackson now will play Holly Springs, a 67-64 winner over St. Andrew’s Episcopal of Madison, for the State 3A title Saturday afternoon at 3.
“It was a big win, but we haven’t done anything yet,” said Chris Love, Velma Jackson’s second-year coach. “We’ve got to finish the deal Saturday.”
Don’t bet against them. The Falcons, who played a rigorous schedule including games against much larger schools, have now won 17 straight themselves.
As Lockhart put it, “We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we usually do, but you have to give Velma Jackson credit. They play with the confidence that you would expect as Velma Jackson team to play with. They’ve won a lot of championships, and then they have the added motivation of everybody telling them they are the underdogs, as if they needed any more motivation.”
Velma Jackson won by handling Yazoo County’s usually wicked full-court press and because the Yazoo players often seemed to be shooting at a moving basket. The Panthers made only 7 of 26 3-point shots. That’s 26.9 percent and that’s not good enough to beat a really good team, and Velma Jackson is that.
Velma Jackson played almost the entire game with just six players, but four of those scored in double figures, led by sophomore Joshua Lee, who scored a game-high 25 points and looks like the next big star to come out of the Camden school, located about 20 miles northeast of Canton.
In recent seasons Velma Jackson has produced players such as Moses Greenwood, who stars at Southeastern Louisiana, and the Weatherspoon brothers, Q and Nick, who play at Mississippi State.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Love said. “I think Josh Lee is the best underclassmen in the state. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone else.”
Lee, a 6-foot-2 guard, hit three of four 3-pointers, eight of 15 field goals, added five rebounds and helped the Falcons beat Yazoo’s press.
“He’s solid,” Lockhart said of Lee. “He’s definitely a player.”
It’s a good bet that Lee will see Yazoo County again over the next couple of seasons, probably in the state tournament. Lockhart’s top eight players are underclassmen who accomplished much more than anyone expected this season.
Get this: Last season they won six games and lost 16. Enter Lockhart, who came from being an assistant to Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss. From 6-16 to 30-1 is quite the accomplishment. Lockhart said he has enjoyed being back coaching high school ball after three successful years as head coach at Jones Junior College and the one year in Oxford. High school ball, he said, “is more pure. The players listen more.”
Hard for this writer to believe that Lockhart, a member of Ole Miss’s Team of the Century, has turned 40 years old and has a 243-81 record as a head coach at several different stops.
“Give Velma Jackson credit, but give our guys credit, too,” Lockhart said. “I’d rather talk about how far they’ve come rather than what happened today. I told them to take this feeling, swallow it and use it as motivation to come back and finish the deal next season.”