February 20, 2018 10:21:59 PM
The Heritage Academy boys basketball team has overcome challenges all season.
From adjusting to a season-ending injury of Moak Griffin to losing to Starkville Academy in the first of two regular-season meetings, Heritage Academy has had to mix and match pieces to find the right fit.
Coach Russ Whiteside ultimately found the right combinations and molded them together to help the Patriots win a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 title and a Class AAA North State title.
Now, Whiteside and the Patriots will have to face what could be their biggest obstacle of the season when they take on Columbia Academy at 7:45 tonight at Columbia Academy in their first game at the Class AAA State tournament.
Heritage Academy (25-10) earned a No. 1 seed for the event, which features four qualifiers from the North and four from the South. The tournament runs through Saturday. The top three teams advance to the MAIS Overall State tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton.
Columbia Academy enters tonight's elimination game coming off losses to Hillcrest Christian (25-18) and to Adams County Christian School (38-33) last weekend at the Class AAA South State tournament. Columbia Academy slipped to the No. 4 seed in the Class AAA event after it entered the Class AAA South State tournament as the No. 1 seed after winning District 4.
Traveling more than 200 miles is just the first hurdle Heritage Academy will have to avoid. Facing a talented team on its home court with its season on the line is another. Still, Whiteside feels the Patriots will respond.
"They're a really good team that got upset in the South State to make us have to play them," Whiteside said. "Obviously when you have to travel that far to go play a team it makes it a little tougher. Like I told them (Monday), when it comes right down to it, does it make it a little tougher? Yes. Is that an excuse? Yes. This group has done a pretty good job showing it is mentally tough down the stretch. They are going to have to do it again."
Heritage Academy beat Bayou Academy 58-21, Lee Academy 40-38, and Starkville Academy 57-45 to claim the championship last weekend at North Delta Academy in Batesville. Whiteside said the victory against archrival Starkville Academy made the title even sweeter.
"We played pretty well," Whiteside said. "It was a lot of hard work. It started way back in offseason workouts in June. They took a different attitude into the season about where we wanted to be and setting high goals for championships. It started in the regular season and then districts and into the North Half. They have done such a good job responding to the challenges we put in front of them. It is all a credit to them and what they have done."
Whiteside said the players have blended really well even after Griffin suffered an injury in football season that prevented him from playing basketball. He said Griffin still plays a big role on the team because he is into games and provides energy.
Whiteside feels the Patriots will be able to feed off the momentum they have gained from winning a district title and a North State championship.
"It is not supposed to be easy at this time of the year," Whiteside said, "but I think our guys will embrace that like they have the last couple of weeks and give us a good chance of winning."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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