February 13, 2013 12:12:11 PM
JACKSON -- Starkville Academy Athletic Director Glenn Schmidt said it best when she met her school's boys basketball coach in the hallway at Hillcrest Christian School.
After a 56-41 victory in the first round of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II tournament Tuesday night, Schmidt wanted Mark Alexander to appreciate the moment.
"Mark, this is a big deal," Schmidt said. "I want your kids to know how special this is."
The victory guaranteed Starkville Academy (16-14) its first winning season since 2009 when first-team All-State selection Jonathan McKenzie played for the program. It also was the Volunteers' first playoff victory in at least five years.
"I just don't think a lot of people expected this from our team, and it's a credit to the kids for believing in themselves that this was possible," Alexander said. "We don't play pretty, but we just find a way."
Starkville Academy used a 26-8 run from the middle of the third quarter to end the game to secure its third victory against Heritage Academy in a three-week period. That familiarity is why Alexander didn't feel comfortable in a one-and-done situation in a neutral-site game.
"It was something I debated for days even bringing up with my team, and I decided to remind them how unique this was and how solid Heritage Academy was in either two games," Alexander said.
Heritage Academy coach Gary Harris understood Alexander's concerns and felt his team had the advantage in the third matchup.
"I thought it was a great matchup for us in a playoff situation," Harris said. "We knew what we had to do and we didn't execute any of it."
With the game tied at 30 in the middle of the third quarter, Alexander took a timeout to remind his team it was in a similar situation as the previous victories against the Patriots.
"I told them they were kind of floating around waiting for the opportunity," Alexander said. "We've never been a first-half team, and that's fine, but I was telling them they have to go out and take this game."
Heritage Academy (13-18) got into foul trouble in the second half. Leading scorer Caleb Lott (eight points) fouled out with 3 minutes, 39 seconds remaining. Senior Hudson Bean led the Patriots with 12 points.
Heritage Academy couldn't senior Carnail Minor (game-high 17 points), who was 6 of 8 from the free-throw line in the final quarter to seal the victory.
"We knew we had to stop (Minor), and he was just determined to not let us do that," Harris said.
The arrival and determination of veterans like Minor, point guard Brandon Sharp, and Caleb Merchant have helped transform a program that nearly went winless two years ago.
"I've known Mark since college, and when I was at Presbyterian Christian the last two years we've eliminated SA the last two years by at least 10-15 points each time," Harris said. "Mark has created an attitude by the rest of the state that you can't walk into a game against them and think you'll win by playing average. It's a new day for us now."
MHSAA Class 5A, Region 3
n Canton 60, Starkville 59, 2OT: At Canton, Caleb Wilson had 16 points and Raphael Leonard added 10 as the Yellow Jackets (9-14) saw their season end one game short of the North State playoffs.
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