March 1, 2014 5:49:28 PM
WEST POINT -- The West Point High School boys basketball team was living up to its billing.
A floater by A.J. Jones and a steal and a dunk by Anthony Craddeth had the crowd geared up and the Green Wave revved and ready to play at least part of the fastest 32 minutes fans were going to see Friday night.
More importantly, the surge helped West Point erase a 13-point deficit against two-time defending state champion Callaway and created a buzz in the building that something memorable was about to happen.
Malik Newman didn't disappoint in delivering that moment.
The junior guard obliged with an exclamation point - a dunk you can see on Maxpreps.com - that was part of a 23-8 run to close the quarter that pushed Callaway past West Point 84-70 in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Callaway (28-1) advanced to play Vicksburg, a 78-74 winner against Center Hill in double overtime on Friday, on Saturday night at West Point High. The victories also secured Callaway and Vicksburg places in the state tournament, which starts next week in Jackson. Callaway, the Region 4 champion, has defeated Vicksburg three times this season.
West Point saw its season end at 26-6.
"We made runs all year long doing that exact thing," West Point coach Brad Cox said. "We had active hands, we were tipping passes, and we were able to get a few turnovers and rush them into a few bad shots and get some rebounds and get some stuff in transition. We weren't able to sustain it."
Newman made sure of that in a crucial stretch that turned the momentum back to Callaway. After Craddeth's dunk, a three-point play by Demarius Calvert (17 points) kept the Green Wave within four, 42-38. Newman (game-high 39 points) followed with a drive and a dunk off a steal from Dontelius Ross (12 points). Callaway continued a 12-1 run with two more baskets before Newman delivered the roof-raising dunk by cupping the basketball behind him and soaring in to finish with authority. West Point senior Juan Davis had the misfortune to be in the air at the same time, but he wasn't able to deter Newman.
After the game, Newman smiled when asked if he liked being on YouTube.
"I hope I made it tonight," Newman said. "The one down there (against Davis), it has to be on there. I know you got it."
When told his aerial antics brought back memories of sky walkers from yesteryear like Connie Hawkins and Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Newman said LeBron Jordan and Michael Jordan are more his speed. He said dunks like that one are unusual because there aren't many players who contest his attempts.
"That is really the first time this season somebody jumped with me," Newman said. "Fast-break dunks are something I work on a lot."
Callaway coach David Sanders said a nine-game stretch of road games that included matchups against Durant, Greenville-Weston, Vicksburg, Macomb, Pearl, Lanier, Meridian (the team's only loss) helped prepare the team for the rigors of playing in a hostile environment at playing time. As coach of the two-time defending Class 5A state champions, Sanders, who is in his first season as head coach, said the team has grown accustomed to playing with a bull's eye on its back, so it knows it is going to get a team's best shot and that it most likely will have to endure at least one run.
"One thing I know about these guys is they absolutely hate to lose, so all I had to do was come into the huddle and say, 'OK, you made it a game, now what are you going to do about it?' " Sanders said of a timeout after West Point cut it to 38-35. "They do a good job of getting together when things get tough. We got contributions from a lot of people tonight."
Sanders said Callaway has had a bull's eye on its back since it won the first state championship under Brent in 2009. Brent coached the team to another title last season before moving on to become the men's basketball coach at Jackson State. Sanders, who played at Province High and Ole Miss, coached at Northwest Rankin High prior to taking the job at Callaway.
With Newman, a 6-foot-4 swingman, as one of the nation's best juniors and a talented and deep supporting cast, Sanders said Callaway is primed to make another run.
"Malik is one of those rare kids who just loves the game-in and game-out competition," Sanders said. "He doesn't get caught up in all of the hype. (Kentucky men's basketball coach John) Calipari has been to the gym four or five times. Malik talks to him every now and then, but for students of the school (Calipari coming to the campus) is a big deal. Malik has seen it all. He has been to Kevin Durant's camp. He has been to Kyrie Irving's camp and stuff like that."
Newman also is used to facing a team's best player or players. West Point tried multiple players on him, and while Craddeth might have had a little success with his steal and dunk in the third quarter, Newman was nearly unstoppable. He used his ballhandling and quickness to slither in and out of the gaps in the 2-3 zone. He showcased his 3-point shooting ability. He also delivered a few high-flying highlights for the people of West Point to remember. Fortunately, his dunk that came through a challenge by Juan Davis was caught on video and will be able available to watch over and over.
Newman said the team continued to believe in the game playing and improved its execution after West Point made its run. He said the schedule was prepared to prepare him and the team for this time of the season. After generating yet another highlight reel moment, Newman said the script won't change for the last few steps.
"We just have to come out and play hard," Newman said. "We can't take any plays off, and we can't take anything for granted."
West Point stayed with Callaway early, but Tre Williams picked up his second foul with 3 minutes, 45 seconds to go in the first quarter. Cox was forced to go back to Williams with 6:10 left in the second quarter after Callaway pushed ahead 28-16.
Williams, one of eight West Point seniors who played in his last game with the team, never found his rhythm with Davis (16 points) and Craddeth, who came off the bench to score 17. After the game, Williams said it felt "surreal" playing against Callaway because he was accustomed to watching them play on television. He felt the Green Wave were prepared, but he said the game was different than ones against local teams because it was played at a faster pace and it was more emotional.
Still, West Point rallied in the second half to get back into the game until it turned back in Callaway's favor.
"I can't even put my finger on it," Williams said. "I can't point it at one thing. I know the whole game rebounds really killed us. They got too many second-chance points."
Cox agreed, saying the "one-sided" rebounding differential was the biggest key to the game. He felt the 2-3 defense the Green Wave played would work well, but he said they weren't able to keep the opponents off the glass.
"You have to give credit to Callaway," Cox said. "They are a good ballclub and they slowed it down a little bit and worked our zone a little bit more and that made us play defense a little longer. I kind of felt like on our end we rushed some shots and forced some shots we didn't need. We kind of kept playing like we were still down 12 instead of like we were back in the ballgame.
"I am proud of our effort and proud of the season we have had."
The bad thing about having an experienced team is the next season's group will be inexperienced. With eight seniors graduating, Cox hopes the next group will take a page from this year's group of seniors. Two years ago, that group was in the 10th grade and watched the program win the district title for the first time in 20-something years. He credited those players for maturing into a cohesive unit that propelled the Green Wave to the semifinals of the North State tournament. Next year, he hopes some players will emerge to build on that success.
"They hear people saying we're going to be down next year, so they feel like they have something to prove," Cox said. "When you have a program like Callaway, you don't rebuild, you reload. That is what we're trying to get. We're going to put in a hard offseason and a hard summer, but right now we're still kind of licking wounds and trying to encourage this group that is leaving and just has played its last high school ballgame."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.