February 20, 2009
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSON -- Johnathan Brandon introduced himself to the state of Mississippi in a big way Thursday night.
The junior guard/forward, called "the best kept secret in the state" by his coach, scored a game-high 26 points to lead the defending Class 4A state champion New Hope High School boys basketball team to a 48-45 victory against Yazoo City in the North State Tournament at Callaway High School.
New Hope (25-4) will take on Ridgeland, an 89-74 winner against Oxford, tonight for a chance to earn an automatic trip to Jackson''s Mississippi Coliseum for the Class 4A State Tournament.
Brandon entered the game firing at the 4-minute, 25-second mark of the first quarter. The 6-foot-1 swingman made two 3-pointers from the left wing and another from the top of the key to give the Trojans a 12-5 lead.
Brandon added a steal and converted a layup and then fed Quenton Shirley for a 3-pointer that gave New Hope a 19-9 advantage after one quarter.
"We just had to go out there and prove to them we could play basketball," Brandon said. "We didn''t have to be tall to win. We got a lot of heart.
"We have a team full of players with big hearts. Sometimes Quenton might not be on. Sometimes Victor might not be on. Some people just have to step up. Anything is possible at this time."
The Trojans needed every one of those points down the stretch.
Yazoo City coach Anthony Carlyle, who was filling in for his father, Archie, who was coaching the girls basketball team against Lafayette County, said his players knew Brandon was one of several shooters they had to watch.
Unfortunately, Brandon was too quick to the trigger at the start -- and too quick to handle at the end.
"They got us with their quickness," Carlyle said. "The key for us was not to let No. 34 (Brandon) get any open shots. He came out and hit three or four open threes, which got us down early."
New Hope coach Robert Byrd said the 3-pointers Brandon hit weren''t plays run for him. He said the Trojans'' ability to shoot from the perimeter and their patience allowed Brandon to find openings in the defense that gave him enough daylight to provide a spark.
"We were looking for a confidence-booster," Byrd said. "We looked like we were shaky at the start of the game and Johnathan gave us some confidence. He is just a gamer. He is probably the best kept secret in the state."
An early lead would have been ideal for Yazoo City (18-14), which had a huge size advantage with 10 players 6-foot or taller, and five 6-3 or better.
As it was, the Indians pounded the ball inside to keep the game close. They were 10-for-13 from the field with three turnovers in the second half, but the Trojans executed just a little better and were able to hold the ball effectively in their half-court sets.
When New Hope wasn''t holding the basketball, it was working a Princeton spread-style offense that made it tougher for the bigger Indians to guards the smaller, quicker Trojans.
Brandon capitalized on his speed to beat 6-8 center DeMarco Cox one-on-one for a layup out of the spread to give New Hope a 43-41 lead with 1 minute, 25 seconds remaining.
''They moved the ball real well," Carlyle said. "They have a real patient offense, they move, they cut, and they caught us slipping a couple of times and got some easy baskets. We never could get over that hump."
Brandon said Byrd instructed the players to take the ball to the basket if they felt they had a mismatch.
"(Cox) probably didn''t want to go out there and guard me because I am real small," Brandon said. "(Byrd) said whoever the big man is on take them to the goal. We were just trying to do anything to win."
Brandon came up with a steal on Yazoo City''s next possession that led to Matt Thrash hitting 1 of 2 free throws to kick the lead to 44-41.
Thomas Winters missed a 3-pointer that could have tied the game, which allowed Brandon to hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final 10.8 seconds to seal the victory.
After several of the free throws, Brandon kept his right hand extended in his follow-through and then used his fisted right hand to pound his chest. He said he usually uses that gesture to give credit to God for helping him to make the shot.
Carlyle said Brandon likely would have hit the free throws even with a hand in his face.
"From the tapes we saw we knew he was their best outside shooter," Carlyle said. "We figured if we could limit his shots we would have a chance. After he made those shots and we limited his shots, we were back in the game. Every time we forced them into a shot that they missed, we gave up an offensive rebound or a putback that kept it a two-possession game."
Davis Lee (two) and Raymond Walters (one) accounted for New Hope''s offensive rebound follows in the third quarter.
Walters (seven points) added a layup off a back cut and a layup off an inbounds play in the fourth quarter to help keep Yazoo City at bay.
The Trojans'' hustle and defense have been two primary reasons why a team that lost its top eight players from a state championship squad has been able to remain at a high level.
Shirley, one of five senior starters who didn''t earn much playing time last season, said this bunch of Trojans enjoys being overlooked.
"We have been going through the whole season underestimated by our height," Shirley said. "Most every team we have played has been bigger than us. When they underestimated us we just come out and hit them right in the mouth and they back down. We just use that as motivation and feed off it."
Byrd said the Trojans didn''t work on a spread offense. He said his players had to take care of the basketball and force the Indians to extend their defense so they could exploit their edge in quickness.
In the end, they also capitalized on their toughness thanks, in part, to a junior in a starring role and a gritty supporting cast.
"Our seniors have been here before," Byrd said. "They just didn''t sit and watch the game last year. They learned. They played against the best team in the state every day in practice and competed, so they can turn around and translate that right here. It speaks well of our team and our program that we can lose the top eight, and probably the two best players in the state, and still be one game away from going to Jackson."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.