JACKSON — Many teams this year that have or are still competing in postseason play can say “there’s always next year” if they don’t achieve their ultimate goal of winning the state championship.
With Cleveland High and East Side consolidating to form Cleveland Central High School, the East Side High School Trojans don’t have that luxury as they are competing in their last season of boy’s basketball.
Entering this season, the Trojans hadn’t made the 3A State Title game since 2014 when they lost to the Velma Jackson High School Falcons 50-35. The Trojans have never won a state championship, but they have made one heck of a run.
When the Trojans defeated Southeast Lauderdale 56-41 in the quarterfinals of the 3A State Playoffs last week, they advanced to Wednesday’s semifinals putting them one win away from another trip to the title game.
The obstacle standing in their way, however, came in the form of the Morton High School Panthers.
For the Trojans to advance to the title game, they had to do what no team had done this year, beat the Panthers, which came into the game with a perfect 30-0 record.
As good as the Panthers were, the Trojans didn’t have time to be scared or intimidated. East Side battled Morton hard and when the game-ending buzzer sounded, the 30-0 turned into 30-1 as East Side (22-11) pulled off a stunning 56-53 win at the Mississippi Coliseum.
East Side players celebrated on the court, while the fans cheered loudly in the bleachers.
The Trojans head to the title game at 3 p.m. Saturday once again playing Velma Jackson.
East Side’s 6-foot-8 junior Kamarian Williams, who recorded a double-double by scoring 18 points with 18 rebounds, said everyone was fired up for this game and excited about playing for the state title.
“We had to come out with a bang,” Williams said. “This is the last year of East Side High School. We have to go ahead and bring it home to Cleveland, Mississippi.”
East Side’s defense held Morton to just 29.5 percent (18-of-61) shooting from the, while East Side’s offense shot 42.2 percent (19-of-45) for the game. East Side also rebounded Morton 45-37.
“My guys battled tonight as never before,” East Side head coach Leroy Cotton said. “Give Morton credit, they’re a very scrappy and tough team. When my guys got down, they battled back. I’m ecstatic about the effort that they made. We looked like we wanted to give it away at the end but the overall effort was great.”
Late in the fourth quarter, the momentum shifted into Morton’s corner. With the Trojans leading 44-37, the Panthers went on a 9-2 run that saw the Panthers attempt eight free throws, making seven.
The player leading the run for Morton was Roti Ware who scored five of the points and made three of his four free throws during that stretch. After Ware hit a free throw with 3:03 left in the game, the Panthers had tied the contest up at 46-46.
Not long after the play, Morton head coach Marcus Luckett was called for a technical foul after arguing a foul call against a player on his team.
The tech enabled Kierre Jackson and Leroy Cotton III to go to the foul line. Each made one of their two free throws to put East Side up 48-46 with three minutes remaining in the game.
Once the Trojans got the lead again, they turned up the heat. Williams stepped his game up as he made a basket and drew the foul to go to the free throw line with 2:32 remaining.
Williams made his free throw to increase East Side’s lead to 51-46. Later in the stretch, Williams hit two more free throws and made a basket and Justin Robinson hit another free throw to stretch East Side’s lead to 10 points at 56-46 with a little over a minute remaining.
“When he wants to, he can be outright dominant,” Cotton said of Williams. “I was happy with his effort. He controlled the rebounding boards and even had a couple of blocks as well.”
The Panthers, however, were not going to give up on their perfect season. Morton battled back and forced East Side to make some mistakes. As a result, the Panthers made a last ditch effort to cut the lead. Ware, who finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, led his team again as he hit a 3-pointer and a free throw to cut East Side’s lead to 56-50.
Later in the quarter, Koby McDonald drained a basket and was fouled in the process as he went to the free throw line. McDonald made his free throw to complete the 3-point play and pull Morton to within three points at 56-53 with 12 seconds to play.
Cotton was fouled and he went to the free throw line. Cotton missed both of his shots and Morton had one last opportunity. Ware through up a 3-point shot in closing seconds but it was no good as East Side held on for the win. East Side overcame 21 turnovers to win the game.
Coach Cotton said he believed his team tried to rush things in the end.
“They would break their initial wave of pressure and try to attack the basket and make a play when we should have just pulled it out. They were going to fouled us, and we would have made free throws at the end to win the game.”
Along with Williams, another player that had a monster game for East Side was Jackson, who went 7-of-10 from the floor and finished with 17 points, three steals and three rebounds.
Jackson came up big time in the third quarter. With the Trojans trailing 32-26, they went on an 11-0 run to take a 37-32 lead with Jackson scoring six of those points. East Side ended up leading 40-35 heading into the final quarter.
“He’s a warrior,” Cotton said. “He’s tough, always gritty. He just came through with some really big buckets for us.”
Jackson, who’s a senior and had an ice pack taped to his knee after the game, said he believed the team had something to prove Wednesday night.
“It was hard but I couldn’t let my team down,” Jackson, who had a bruised thigh, said. “I heard we had like a 10 or 15 percent chance of winning. I took that personally. We couldn’t give up. We just had to keep fighting.”
Along with Williams and Jackson, Peyton Taylor was East Side’s other player with double figures in points as he scored 10 points with eight rebounds and two steals.
For Velma Jackson, Fredrick Harper aided Ware with 14 points followed by McDonald with 11 points, four rebounds and three steals.
On Saturday at 3 p.m., East Side will face a Velma Jackson team that beat Holly Springs 67-43 in the semifinals. Velma Jackson, at 26-6, beat East Side both times the two teams met this year and have an eight game winning streak against East Side. The Falcons also won three straight state titles from 2013-15 and went to the state semifinals last year. This is Velma Jackson’s fourth trip to the title game in five years. In the Region 3-3A Tournament last month, Velma Jackson finished first while East Side finished third. East Side hasn’t beaten Velma Jackson since Feb. 3, 2012
Cotton said everyone is amped up for this rematch.
“That’s what the guys were so ecstatic about in the locker room,” Cotton said. “This is the final game for basketball at East Side High School. We want to go out and give it our best. Who knows, you’ve got to play the game. Morton was 30-0, and Velma Jackson has won the state championship three out of the last four years. We’re going to line up and play and whatever happens happens. If we win it great, if we don’t, I’m so proud of the effort of the guys that I have.”