Final loss still haunts top player

By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – The 2010-11 season wasn’t supposed to end the way it did for the Okolona High boys basketball team.
Not in the mind of senior standout David “D.J.” Gardner.
With this being the final season for longtime coach Bobby Ford, the Chieftains seemed destined to be playing for a state championship.
Their title dreams were dashed when their star player’s jump shot hit the front of the rim in the final seconds of February’s MHSAA Class 1A North Tournament semifinal.
“I stay at home watching that tape,” Gardner said about the footage of Okolona’s 69-68 overtime loss to Drew. “I think about that last shot I took – if I should have drove it in or if I went to the mid-range and got closer, and if it would have been different.
“I watch it every once in a while. I try to get over it, so I can have something less to think about. I can’t really get over it, especially since I took the last shot.”
Even though he missed his final shot of his career, Gardner had a game to be proud of. The 6-foot-7, 195-pound shooting guard – who likes to take a nap before games and often shoots by himself on a playground hoop – scored 44 points that night.
“I couldn’t ask for any more from him,” said Ford, who recently retired from coaching after 31 seasons. “I sat there on the bench and watched my team play, and at one point in that second half, it was just David Gardner for us. That was it.
“The other kids were kind of stymied – they just couldn’t get anything going. It was all David. It was evident. … As I look back, afterwards, I just wish we kept the ball in his hands on those free throws instead of those other kids having to try to make those free throws under pressure.
“Because I think if we had made some of those free throws right there, we never would have had to go into overtime that game.”
Soaring on sore foot
Regardless of that outcome, Gardner had a season to remember. Playing with a hurt foot, the Mississippi State signee still averaged 32 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game to earn Daily Journal Player of the Year honors and, most impressive, a first-team Parade All-American selection.
With a left foot in need of some bone spurs to be shaved down, he still shot 81 percent from the free-throw line and 40 percent from 3-point range. His 1,024 point total accounted for nearly 45 percent of his team’s scoring in 2010-11.
“His foot was really bothering him,” said Ford. “I was actually scared that I might have to just cut his season short. When he went to the doctor, that was a very deep concern.
“He was actually scared to go to the doctor, but I told him, ‘No, son, we’re not going to risk you hurting yourself and ruining any opportunity of you getting to play at the next level. We’re not going to do that to you.
“‘Sure, I love to win, but your future means a lot more to us than winning ballgames.’ So, we pretty much had to make him go – his mom and I did.”
The doctor would deliver good news: He could continue to play and not worry about further damage to his foot.
That was especially good news for the rest of the Chieftains, who were already without one of their best players (Marques Conway) for the entire season.
“We didn’t really have a second scorer,” Ford said. “The other guys were good team players. … They could score, but against teams that play good defense, they couldn’t get their shot. They could be guarded.”
Even with a defender draped on him to the left of the key, Gardner got his shot off against Drew in the closing seconds of overtime.
It just happened to be one of the very few times he failed to deliver.