July 21, 2014 10:13:31 PM
WEST POINT - West Point High School boys basketball coach Brad Cox had quite the shoot around before his team played a critical Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A, Region 2 matchup with New Hope.
"In January, we had a long stretch of games," Cox said. "We were winning but not playing well. I thought the pressure was getting to us. We suffered a real tough home loss to Oxford. It was a game we should have won. So we loaded up and took the kids to Starkville and went bowling.
"For the first time in a while, the players relaxed. You could tell they were friends again. I was terrified at not practicing the day before a game. It worked out. We came out with a lot more energy and had more fun on the court together. I thought that trip really carried us through the rest of the season."
With eight seniors leading the way, West Point finished 26-6 and returned to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The magical ride ended with a North State Class 5A semifinal round loss to eventual state champion Callaway.
For his squad's success, Cox is being chosen today as The Dispatch's Large School Boys Basketball All-Area Coach of the Year.
"It really started the year before as juniors," Cox said. "We knew we had a good group. We spent that year waiting for it to click. We lost of a lot of close games during that season. We lost in the district tournament on a 3-point shot at the buzzer to New Hope. They really lit a fire under them. They were back out there next day in the gym ready to go.
"That summer we tried to make things as hard as possible. We went to a camp at Itawamba (Community College). We played in a shootout at Mississippi State against some other great teams from other states. We tried to play as tough competition as we could, because we knew we had a chance to be pretty good."
West Point senior point guard A.J. Jones enjoyed getting better as a basketball player and team each day.
"We had an incredible run with a lot of great memories," Jones said. "The thing is defense. We played a lot of it. The crowd gets hyped over dunks and stuff like that. However, we worked really hard on our defense. Coach Cox was such a great influence and great motivator. He would not have it any other way."
The West Point Gym was nicknamed the Highlight Factory. The Green Wave featured several long, talented players, who could get up and down the court like gazelles. No home game was complete without a series of rim-rattling dunks, keeping the home crowd energized until the final horn.
"I think the average fans really gets caught up in the dunks and the highlight reel plays," Cox said. "What they don't see is the steal or pass deflection in the lane which led to the layup. We tried to be the most active team on the floor defensively each night. We had a lot of length and athleticism. People were really surprised at how well all of our players could get up and down the floor.
"The dunks are fun. They keep the crowd engaged in the game. Once we started winning some games, the whole community turned out and we felt really blessed for that support. It really motivated the kids to play at a higher level."
Cox graduated from Oak Hill Academy and later Mississippi State. His family - including wife Jade and children Cloe, Kiley and Brady - all have deep ties to Clay County.
Growing up in West Point, he was well aware of the huge shadow cast by the tradition-rich West Point football program before taking the basketball job. His coaching career included a two-year stint at Oak Hill before moving down the road to work two seasons as an assistant at West Point and now four seasons as head coach.
Cox's second squad won the school's first region title in basketball since 1989. That dream run ended with a first-round playoff loss to Provine.
"Really our job has been to teach athletes how to play the game of basketball," Cox said. "At both West Point and Starkville, you are talking two schools where they live and die with the football programs. It presents a unique challenge but it also presents a fun one. This year, the support was tremendous. There were a lot of announcements during the day to get the students out to the game.
"The town got behind this team. Our attendance was really good all year. In a regular season home game with Aberdeen, they had to lock the doors because we had reached capacity. Nobody could ever remember that happening before out here."
Stability has been missing the ingredient in the West Point program. Now, Cox feels like that tide is changing. The ability to coach the same kids from ninth grade to 12th grade paid huge dividends this year.
"The biggest drawback has been the turnover in coaches," Cox said. "Nobody has stayed here and developed anything. We have these guys every day in seventh period. Other than July where we don't do anything, this group has been with me every day - 11 months out of the year - for the last four years. I think you saw what that means on the court.
"This year, we took better shots and defended better. Our ball movement was better. Our consistency was huge. Really you can go to any practice of any team and see a lot of the same things. The thing is how well can do you do them and can you consistently do them well. Because we had the same group together for so long, we were able to develop those skills and take it to another level."
Still, the fruits of success were sewn the year before.
"That year we beat Starkville for the first time since, well really no one could remember," Cox said. "Starkville is one of those programs always in the mix. They are always playing for a championship. We beat them at our place in a really tight game. That was the motivating factor. That was when players started wanting to get into the gym before school at 6 a.m. They wanted in on Sundays after church.
"This year, we went to the Starkville Thanksgiving Classic and beat Aberdeen over there. Aberdeen was really good. We won the game with two of our better players not having good games. We lost to Provine in the Columbus Christmas Classic. At the break, we had two losses and still had not played our best basketball. When you have success and you are not playing well, you know some really good things are to come."
West Point senior forward Demarius Calvert knew the time was right for the Green Wave to make a move.
"We played together for so long and that is why we had success," Calvert said. "Coach Cox really believed in us. He knew how to put all of the pieces together. It took a lot of hard work and determination but we made sure we did the best we could. On defense, nobody outworked us.
"On offense, we got a lot better this year and it showed in some of the really big games we won."
Jones and Calvert were joined by fellow seniors Juan Davis, Anthony Craddeth, Trey Williams, Q'Darius Chandler, Darius White and Diquan Ewing. It was a special group. It was a group that will be missed when the Highlight Factory reopens for business in November.
"Basketball in this area is really underrated," Cox said. "Starkville and Aberdeen both won 20-plus games like us. New Hope and Oxford are always capable. The real strength of this state is in the Jackson area but we play some really good basketball up here as well. We play each other five or six times during the summer. There is a lot of respect, a lot of friendships and a lot of good basketball.
"Thanks to a lot of hard work from a lot of special kids, we have been able to be in the discussion of good teams. It feels really great to know what the program has accomplished and what lies ahead."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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