March 3, 2010 2:01:00 PM
Having watched the Starkville High School boys basketball team provide the best prep basketball entertainment I''ve witnessed in my three years as a reporter and editor, I know the magnitude of today''s work and the storylines that have made this year''s team what it is.
Two games away from erasing the state championship frustrations, the Yellow Jackets'' best approach to making history is to forget what happened in the past. Nevermind what you''ve heard.
It''s the only way. Your opponent will do the same.
Despite the advice, I can''t help but think a large part of Starkville High''s motivation are the shortcomings at the Big House. The losses have created a chip on the program''s shoulder that weighs a little bit more every time players hear a joke or are doubted just a little bit.
Will the youngest team in the tournament be distracted?
I don''t think so, but more importantly, coach Greg Carter isn''t worried.
The Class 6A North Half State Tournament was evidence it won''t happen.
Victories against Vicksburg and Greenville-Weston were thorough, top-to-bottom wins that showed Starkville''s two stars don''t have to dominate for it to win a playoff game.
Perimeter shooting and a barreling offensive pace with one of the best complementary post combinations in the state make for terrific odds in the Mississippi High School Activities Association''s Class 6A Final Four, which tips off today. The Yellow Jackets open at 2:30 p.m. against last year''s top flight state champion, Biloxi High. It''s hard not to give the edge to Starkville based on what I''ve seen this year and how well it is playing.
But the team''s efforts have come out of nowhere.
After so much roster turnover from last season -- seven gone from the 2008-09 squad -- I never would have thought Starkville would be 27-2 and the favorite to capture the state crown come March.
Minus the dearth of newcomers, the scenario was much the same in ''08, as the Yellow Jackets blazed through the regular season with one of the state''s top players and a talented supporting cast.
What makes this year different has nothing to do with missing the tournament last season or the heartbreak from the last-second loss to Jackson Provine in ''08. Rather, it''s the uniqueness of their working parts and their ability to score in a variety of ways that gives them an edge.
Rashad Perkins leads the way with 23.5 points per game, 13.7 rebounds, and 4.9 blocked shots per game. Edward Townsel is right under 20 points a game with eight assists and 4.8 steals every night. Then there''s the other half of the post duo in 6-foot-8 Gavin Ware, who hauls in 8.2 rebounds per game and scores 9.4 a night.
Perkins and Townsel must stay out of foul trouble, as they''re the heartbeat of the team. As seniors who''ve been to the Big House, they must have their best games today to help the team advance to Saturday''s final.
I know that''s obvious, but it would take a great deal of pressure off the likes of Shaquille Hill and Jaquez Johnson, who''ve performed brilliantly at the two (off guard) and three (small forward) positions.
Johnson hit his stride midseason and became a starter when talented sophomore Jacolby Mobley became inactive. His arrival was huge from 3-point range in the team''s win against Provine at the Columbus Christmas Classic and in the North Half State Tournament.
The thumper quarterback for the football team, Johnson is a physical matchup off the dribble and in transition and is the perfect yin-yang duo with lightning-quick Townsel.
"I learned how to use my body a long time ago because I''ve been big a long time," said Johnson, a 6-foot, 205-pounder. "It helps me a lot, like if I get to the goal and I don''t have a good angle I can force my way in or use my body to create space."
The dimension Johnson adds and Hill''s shooting and quickness make the pieces to Starkville''s Voltron special.
On top of that, everyone can run and is willing to play within themselves to keep the wheels churning.
"Everybody knows their role," Johnson said. "We know who our main two players are and the rest of the players come in and get rebounds, play defense, or handle the ball. It''s not really a lot of stress on everybody that way."
Carter knows the Jackets will lean on their seniors, but he made it clear Hill and Johnson must play well for the starters'' chemistry to continue.
"He and Shaquille, they''re the two guys that kind of helped to bind everything together," Carter said. "Rashad, Edward, and Gavin are our top three priorities on offense, and they all know. But because of that, those two get left open all the time. They''ve been making shots and making plays -- like a chemistry guy -- who are accepting of the fact they''re not the first option but still make a huge impact on the game. When you talk about it in the pro game and college game of having great chemistry players, those two are great chemistry players."
David Miller covers Mississippi State sports for The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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