For the past week, Central basketball coach Bobby Wright has insisted his team isn’t about just one or two players. That his team is playing in the Class 7A championship game on Saturday because of its depth, not just the elite talent it has at the top of its lineup.
Sure, Tre Todd is the most effective offensive weapon the Red Devils have. And, yes, the team’s fortunes may have been very different without the defense and rebounding ability of Tionne Williams inside. But time and again this year, Central has proven that its success has come as a result of the sum of all of its parts.
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On a team questionnaire filled out prior to the state semifinals, Wright noted that it’s been his team’s chemistry and depth at the guard position that has taken it to the state finale.
Take Keiondre Jakes, for example.
Jakes, a solid role player off the bench, is counted upon as a defensive specialist for the Red Devils. In Thursday’s 63-61 overtime win over Spain Park, his role expanded when Todd went to the bench with his fifth foul with three minutes remaining in regulation.
Jakes finished the game with 11 points and two steals, both times turning takeaways into fast break points.
And then there’s Jermond Williams, who finished with 10 points, including seven in the final four minutes to help force overtime. Sophomore Adrian Jackson had only three points, but he also had three crucial steals down the stretch after Central lost Todd for the game.
“This team, top to bottom, the guard play is pretty steady,” Wright said on Friday. “A kid like Keiondre Jakes or Adrian Jackson. They play really good defense for us.”
Wright said that he likes to split time with some of his guards. Williams and Demarkus Lampley are looked upon more as scorers on offense, while Jakes and Jackson are relied upon for their stingy play on the other side of the floor. The resulting combination is a foursome of guards who can more than fill the void in the absence of the team’s best player.
For their part, the players never doubted that they’d be able to get a win without Todd down the stretch. Jakes said Todd told him he’d need to step up in order to keep the season going. But he already knew that.
So did Williams, who said he’s used to big situations.
“I just prepare myself in practice, work hard,” he said. “It’s a mindset. You always have to be ready, always have to be aggressive. You wait for the big moments. You have to be ready to step up.”
You wait for big moments. You have to be ready to step up.
Jackson, only a sophomore, wasn’t intimidated by the gravity of the moment. He knew he was counted on for his defense, so he just focused on that.
“Playing smart and aggressive at the same time,” he said. “Not reaching in, just the fundamentals. You’ve got to play through it. When someone goes down, the next man has to step up. Someone has to step up and fill in for him.”
It’s nothing new to the Red Devils, who played six games without Todd this season and over 20 without Justyn Ross, whose season ended after suffering a knee injury in December. But the Red Devils have met every new challenge head on.
They have one challenge left. They face McGill-Toolen at 6:45 p.m. ET on Saturday in Birmingham. Unlike Spain Park, which was big and physical, McGill-Toolen plays a smaller, more guard-heavy lineup like Central’s.
But Wright will take his guards over anyone else, including the Yellow Jackets. He told his team as much during a meeting after a morning practice on Friday, adding that the group still hasn’t played its best game yet this season despite the 30-game winning streak it is currently on.
“We haven’t played our best game yet,” he said. “I feel that. I feel like we’ve still got our best game in us. If they can come out tomorrow and have their best game of the season, our chances are pretty good.”
Central has won every tournament its played in this year: At Newnan (Ga.), in the Shaw Christmas tournament, the area tournament and the state regional. Now, there’s only one thing left.
“A state championship,” Wright said.
Central vs. McGill-Toolen
What: Class 7A state championship
When: Saturday, 6:45 p.m. ET
Where: BJCC Arena, Birmingham, Ala.
Records: Central, 32-1; McGill-Toolen, 27-6