January 17, 2010 12:37:00 AM
Defense is the engine that drives the New Hope High School boys basketball team.
Former coach Robert Byrd helped perfect the formula of in-your-jersey pressure and relentless effort. Those ingredients ultimately paid off for Rashanti Harris, Dale Hughes and the rest of the Trojans in a Class 4A state title in 2008.
The Trojans showcased those same skills last season. An undersized and inexperienced team used grit and resolve to rack up a 25-6 record before it lost to eventual Class 4A state champion Callaway in the third-place game of the North Half State tournament in Jackson.
The 2009-10 Trojans flashed that same determination Saturday night.
Johnathan Brandon scored a career-high 36 points and Raymond Walters added 15 to lead New Hope to a 70-56 victory against Minor (Birmingham, Ala.) in the final game of the annual Vaughan-Robinson Classic in Columbus.
"When (the 2008 state title team was practicing) they were making us better," Brandon said. "In the New Hope program, the younger kids always get better than the older kids. That''s how we try to do it. We never try to compare ourselves to them, but, in my opinion, we have better defense than they do. Sometimes we lack on offense, but defense is going to be there every night."
New Hope (17-1) withstood nearly a full game of full-court pressure from the visitors from Birmingham, Ala., thanks to a strong floor game by point guard Matt Thrash and backcourt mates Jamal Richardson and Hank Washington.
Brandon provided the offensive firepower, scoring 13 consecutive points in the first quarter to help the Trojans off on the right foot.
But defense was the difference. The Trojans controlled their defensive backboards in the second half against the taller Tigers and played with the enthusiasm and energy first-year coach Drew McBrayer knows the Trojans will need if they want to make a run at getting back to Jackson.
"That''s how we''re going to have to play," said McBrayer, who was an assistant coach to Byrd last season and took over after the veteran coach resigned after 11 seasons as the boys basketball coach. "We''re going to have to outworks folks and battle to get every loose ball and everything we can to compete. They are starting to buy in to it."
The effort came less than 24 hours after a 53-45 victory against district rival West Point. McBrayer said he wasn''t surprised his players were able to amp up their energy level in part because he knew they wanted to protect their home court in an annual event.
Brandon agreed and took the challenge of scorekeeper Michelle Brown to have a career night. Brandon said Brown told him she doubted he would be able to score 30 points in a game this season, so he said he told her he would eclipse that number Saturday.
"Sometimes shots just fall, and I was blessed tonight with 36," Brandon said. "I could have been blessed with six points and I would have been happy as long as we got the win."
Brandon, who is known for his long-range shooting, scored a variety of ways: 3-pointer, offensive rebound, free throws, and back cuts out of good execution in the half-court set.
"We were very, very unselfish tonight," McBrayer said. "It just so happens that when we got open shots it was in Johanthan''s hands."
McBrayer said the play of Thrash helped get the ball in the right person''s hands at the right time.
"I could not have asked for a better point guard in the system than what we have got in Matt," McBrayer said. "He does everything we need him to do. He plays extremely hard when he on the floor, he doesn''t turn the ball over very much, and he gets us in our offense, especially against pressure."
In other games, Rachel Hollivay was named her team''s MVP, but Lafayette County defeated New Hope 54-43. Hollivay scored a team-high 23 points, while Kelli Petty had nine.
Daquarius Mallard had 27 points and Myquell Grace added eight to lead the Noxubee County boys to a 64-36 victory against Lafayette County.
Morton defeated Madison Central 50-43 in the third game of the day.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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