ORLANDO, Fla. – Eleven players from seven different schools proved last week that a high level of basketball talent still exists in the hill country of North Mississippi.
For North Mississippi Wildcats head coach Michael Seger, this season wasn’t about championships and it was about a lot more than just basketball.
Seger, an assistant coach at Pontotoc, started each day with a team prayer and closed each night with a team devotional focused on loving yourself and your teammates enough to do whatever it takes to win both on and off the court, while letting the way you play the game shine as an example as the way you live your life.
“I never really understood what coach meant by loving your teammates until this week,” said one of the Wildcats, Hickory Flat’s Zavion Adams. “When I started seeing guys take charges and clapping for me when I came off the floor, it started to make sense how that kind of love turns into wins.”
When the Wildcats competed against 72 teams in the AAU 17-under Division II National Championship Tournament last week at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, that lesson of love turned into a 7-2 tournament record and a sixth-place finish that silenced some doubters back home.
“Not many people I talked to thought we would come down here and do so well, but we learned a lot of things about leading by example and loving each other from coach Seger over the summer, that once we started believing in those things as a team we really started playing better,” said Oxford’s Brandon Blake.
The other players on the Wildcats’ roster: Andrew Bell, Josh Green and Griffin McCormick (Pontotoc); Charlie Easley (Calhoun City), Caleb Van Tassell (Hickory Flat); Zach Carnell (Ingomar); Trevor Boren (Saltillo) and Austin Harrelson and Reed Clayton (Tupelo).
Rebound from opening loss
The Wildcats dropped their first game of the week, a 65-55 decision to RBS 17 (Illinois) in a game played at Windemere High School.
But they reeled off four-straight wins – 57-48 over NFBC Orange Park (Florida), 67-52 against Academic Basketball Club (Connecticut), 72-63 versus Connecticut Gold, and a 63-48 win over the PT Cruisers (South Carolina) – to earn a spot in the National Championship Sweet 16 on Thursday.
On Friday, the Cats dropped a 63-51 decision to the Minutemen White (New York) at Disney’s Milk House, but rebounded in a must-win situation to grab an 80-52 victory over the GT Stars (Atlanta) to stay alive in tournament play.
On Saturday, Harrelson came off the bench in the fourth quarter to nail a go-ahead three-pointer from the wing and forced a pair of game-clinching turnovers on defense to help the Wildcats defeat the Louisiana Roundballers 62-54 to earn a spot in the national tournament top 10.
Later that day, Bell and Green combined to hit seven three-pointers – Bell four, Green three – while Clayton added two more in the Wildcats’ 64-53 win over the Houston Flight (Texas), which in turn earned them an impressive sixth place finish in the tournament.
“This summer has been great,” said Tupelo’s point guard, Clayton. “We’ve learned a lot about loving each other as teammates to be able do our part no matter how big or small it is to be able to win as a team. I hope we can all carry that back to our high school teams and have that same attitude to have great seasons this year.”
The Wildcats finished the AAU season with a 24-21 record, which included beating the highly-respected Mid-State Ballers (Tennessee) to win the Hiram Roundball Classic championship in Atlanta earlier this summer.