March 26, 2016 6:32:16 PM
The target was on the back of the Columbus High School boys basketball team from the day Luther Riley was hired.
When you have won five state championships, including a Grand Slam title, at Jackson Provine High, you're accustomed to playing at the state's highest level.
That's why when Riley was hired in May he didn't shy away from expectations of leading the Falcons to a championship in the state's highest classification, Class 6A.
It didn't matter that Columbus had zero boys basketball state titles to its name. Granted, the program had established itself as successful under longtime coach Sammy Smith, but the elusive crown that many in the city had craved for a long time had eluded the program.
That all changed under Riley.
On March 12, Columbus defeated reigning Class 6A champion Starkville 37-33 at Mississippi Coliseum to make history.
Senior point guard Javontae McDavid led Columbus (27-5) with 13 points. He hit four free throws in the final 17 seconds to seal the Falcons' first championship.
Cameron Douglas (10 points) was the only other Falcon in double figures. Robert Woodard II, who was named the game's MVP, and Demetrice Clopton, added six points.
Nearly two weeks after making history, Riley said there never was a question that the Falcons wanted to win a state championship. Even though Columbus entered Riley's first season with 10 seniors, the players didn't have the championship experience of some of Riley's previous teams, which is why he said it took time for the squad to realize how hard it needed to play and what it needed to do on defense to realize its goal.
"The kids stayed with the process and believed in the process and knew what they wanted," Riley said. "They worked tirelessly to get it done."
Riley related the example of Douglas, who he said persevered through aches and pains of a long season. He said Douglas said to him after the Falcons beat the Yellow Jackets that he was excited because he could get an ice bath to relieve the discomfort in his knees.
Riley enjoyed that anecdote so much because it showed how the Falcons adjusted throughout the season and kept their focus on the ultimate prize. He said he tried to impress on his players that things like aching knees were part of life and were things professional people had to overcome daily.
Riley said he first noticed the proverbial light bulb going on and that his team had embraced his defensive concepts in a game against Olive Branch at the New Albany tournament. He said he challenged the team to hold Olive Branch to the same number of points or even fewer in the second half and Columbus responded. From that point, Riley realized Columbus had made the transition and understood the importance of defense and how its play on that side of the ball was going to pave the way for history to be made.
"From a basketball standpoint, our offense was ahead of our defense," Riley said. "They were not stopping anybody. I asked them, 'You told me you want to win championships and this is how we do it (by playing defense). I told them, 'Once you start playing defense you will have a chance to do it.' They believed in me 98 percent, but once we got the other 2 percent on defense, we had a chance to win us a championship, and we able to do it."
The work for a second title already has started. Riley said he already has told his players that winning a title makes winning a second one even tougher. He also acknowledged that a successful championship run is a valuable experience because it shows the players how they have to act and what they have to do to finish a marathon.
Today, with title in hand, the Falcons' hard work will be based on staying at the top of Class 6A. Losing 10 seniors will be a challenge, but Woodard II figures to get even better as a junior. The Falcons also have a group of young players who are hungry to carve their identity and to make sure a program can built and that the title run isn't a one-hit wonder.
Riley will do his best to see the Falcons respond. He said the character of the 2015-16 team has set the tone for future squads. Riley said character helped the Falcons persevere and "buy into" his system. The reward was a championship journey that will be remembered for a long time.
"Once you have kids who have great character, you just convey to them that this is what you want, this is what you have to do to go get it," Riley said. "I believed in them, as I told them daily, and I need the same respect. They bought in pretty quick. It was a good deal. ... It was tough on them, like getting up in the morning and doing some of conditioning workouts, but there was not one time anybody missed practice or gave up. That is when I knew this was going to be a special group."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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