March 15, 2011 8:32:00 AM
SCOOBA -- The hype was tempting.
Mark White heard people talk all season about how his East Mississippi Community College men''s basketball team had the potential to get back to the NJCAA Championship for a second year in a row.
But a season-ending injury to Joe McCoy, the team''s second-leading scorer, in the first part of the season clouded that equation.
Still, EMCC overcame that blow and jelled in the second half of the season, winning 12 games in a row to build the anticipation of another trip to Hutchinson, Kansas.
A 61-52 loss to Pearl River C.C. on Feb. 23 in the semifinals of the MACJC State tournament left EMCC wondering again. Did it have what it takes to keep its season alive?
Deonte Alexander and Jonathan King helped make sure the answer was a resounding yes.
Joined by sophomore Donovan Walker, Alexander and King re-focused the Lions and played key roles in an 89-80 victory against PRCC on March 2 in the Region 23 tournament. A 71-67 victory the next day against Southern-Shreveport punched EMCC''s ticket to the 16-team "Big Dance."
At 4:30 p.m. today, No. 12 EMCC (25-3) will take its first steps when it faces 27-7 Southeastern C.C. (Iowa) at the 7,600-seat Hutchinson Sports Arena.
EMCC and SCC are two of only three schools (Monroe College, N.Y.) that have returned to the five-day tournament for the second consecutive year.
Last year, EMCC made its first appearance in the NJCAA Division I Championship. EMCC Brunswick (N.C.) in the first round before falling to Navarro (Texas) College and Northwest Florida State.
White knew his team had the pieces it needed to get to Kansas. He wondered if everything would come together again in time.
"I wasn''t quite sure even if we were playing our best and someone else was playing their best that we would be able to win," White said. "But to the guys'' credit they found a way. Were we more talented than everybody? I am not sure about that. Are we talented? Yes."
White said leadership has pushed the Lions back to the national stage. He said Alexander, King, and Walker emerged after the loss to PRCC and brought out a different mind-set and a stronger desire from his players.
"They didn''t want to be siting at home when they knew the team definitely had the talent to go on," White said.
Alexander, King, and Walker made sure they organized the team and studied film of PRCC so they were more than prepared for a meeting in the Region 23 tournament.
Alexander said the players met and resolved not to let PRCC, which defeated them last season in the state tournament, beat them again.
"We went into the game thinking we weren''t going to lose this game," Alexander said. "There was a big difference. The week they beat us we were just going to the game thinking they were ranked No. 7 in the national but we could beat them. The week after we knew we had to try another approach. We came back and discussed our problems and got a win."
King said the team "refused to lose" in the rematch against PRCC. He, too, noticed a difference in his teammates and how the squad played.
"We knew if we wanted to go back to Kansas we had to beat Pearl River," King said. "Everybody was excited and practicing hard and was ready to play in the game."
White, the 2010-11 MACJC and NJCAA Region 23 Coach of the Year, hopes that attitude will carry over. He said this season''s team might not be as deep or have as much height as the 2009-10 team, but everyone, particularly the sophomores, has taken turns leading the team and helped it re-claim a spot with the nation''s best.
"I just saw a different mind-set for our team," White said. "I just saw (the sophomores realized) we have to do all we have to do. Those guys really stepped up, and I couldn''t say enough about what they did last week."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.