By Tyler Cleveland
If the term “unfinished business” makes you cringe, you are in for one heck of a week at the MHSAA state basketball championships.
Of the 48 teams that punched their tickets to Jackson this past week, 26 are making the trip for the second year in a row. Eighteen of those 26 did not win the championship last year, and five are looking to atone for a loss in the championship game.
“We don’t have a Dandy Dozen player. Heck, we don’t even have a kid that’s being recruited by a Division I school. What we have is a group of guys that comes to work every day and practices as hard as they play. That’s a recipe for success.”
It’s a long road to recover from a loss of that magnitude. Just ask Meridian coach Ron Norman, who led his Wildcats to the brink of a championship last season before falling to Columbus 47-37 in the 6A title game.
“It was rough,” Norman said. “But ultimately I think it motivated us to get back (to Jackson). You know you’re not going to win it every year. That’s just not how it works. But what you can do is put yourself in a position to have that opportunity each year, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Norman’s Wildcats (25-4) punched their ticket with a win over previously top-ranked Biloxi last week. They trailed by three points with 1:03 left, but Meridian avenged its season-opening loss with a 55-51 win by scoring the final seven points of the game to beat the Indians on the road.
Meridian has returned to Jackson despite having to replace Dandy Dozen guard Tyron Brewer, who graduated after last season.
“This team has developed their own identity and their own style of play,” Norman said. “We don’t have a Dandy Dozen player. Heck, we don’t even have a kid that’s being recruited by a Division I school. What we have is a group of guys that comes to work every day and practices as hard as they play. That’s a recipe for success.”
The Wildcats will face Tupelo in the semifinals Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Other 2018 runners-up look for redemption include the Forest Hill boys (5A), the Holly Springs boys (3A), the Bay Springs boys (2A) and West Jones girls (5A).
In 4A boys, Florence is back after losing to eventual runner-up Corinth in the 2017-2018 quarterfinals. For the Eagles’ Dandy Dozen guard Jaylon Forbes, who signed with Alabama earlier this year, it presents a chance to do something he hasn’t been able to do in his first three seasons – bring a golden ball trophy back to his hometown.
The Eagles (24-6) defeated Lanier 70-54 in the quarterfinal round. They’ll face Gentry at 7 p.m. Monday.
For others, the unfinished business goes back years. For others, it’s a decade or more.
Hamilton girls’ coach Sue Verner has led the Lady Lions to the semifinal round for the first time in 14 years. Her grudge with Jackson goes back to the 1993 season, when she served as the senior leader on a Hamilton squad that reached the title game before losing to Bogue Chitto.
She said another trip to Jackson – and ultimately, a state title – would help alleviate the pain from all those years ago.
“(This year) is an opportunity for me to try to complete something I started in ’93 and wasn’t able to accomplish,” Verner said.
Hamilton (22-2) will face Simmons at 10:30 a.m. Monday.