By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The district opener for Jewell Gates and his Millington Trojans was another chance to start 1-0 and build a core of toughness.
The Liberty Tech Crusaders were primed to give the Trojans a challenge jumping out to a 20-12 first quarter advantage. But Millington took the punch and started to fight back in the William Osteen Gymnasium in the second quarter outscoring Liberty Tech 22-16.
The Trojans kept the positive momentum going during the Jan. 10 contest taking a 43-42 lead early in the third quarter. Then it was time for Liberty Head Coach Arnett Bodenhamer to gut check his team.
“When he called that timeout and we were on the verge of maybe separating ourselves from them, at that moment he called the timeout and got a little bit into his team,” Millington Head Coach Gates said. “And we tried to get into our team because I knew what was about to come. They were going to be a little bit more physical and take everything to the rim.
That was the turning point,” Gates continued. “At that moment we turned a couple of balls over. We took a couple of bad shots. That’s the stuff when you either going to be soft and do something easy. Or you’re going to be tough and hard, go earn a basket. Or stop them on D. It’s toughness on both ends.”
Liberty pulled away to win the game 75-62. The Crusaders used pressure defense the length of the court and attacked the rim to outscore Millington 19-5 to close out the third quarter.
The Trojans’ path to the 43-42 lead started in the second quarter with Jonathan Mattox scoring a bucket in the lane and making a pair of foul shots. Liberty led 20-16.
The Crusaders built their lead back to 25-16 when Trojan Rodney McGhee hitting a jumper to calm things down for Millington.
After another Mattox free throw, Millington trimmed the Liberty lead to 25-21 when Bobby Macklin scored on a put-back bucket.
Liberty responded once again with a pair of three-pointers to make the tally 31-21. The Trojans closed out the first half on a 13-5 run.
The Millington outburst started with a McGhee pull-up jumper. Then it was time for the older Mattox to take over. Bryce picked up where his brother Jonathan left off attacking the basket.
Bryce’s bucket made the score 33-25. Then Millington senior Cameron Tubbs intercepted a Liberty pass and cruised to the other end of the court for a layup.
After a Bryce Mattox put-back basket, the score was 33-29. Mattox then cut the deficit to a bucket driving to the rim for layup.
Trailing 34-31, Millington tied the game when McGhee hit a baseline triple. The Crusaders scored the final two-points of the half to lead 36-34 at the break.
The Trojans started the second half on a 9-6 run started by a Hunter Klutts basket. Once Millington took the lead at 43-42, Liberty called a timeout and changed its method of attack. No longer were the Crusaders settling for outside shots, Liberty started to attack the rim and feed the post.
“Jackson Liberty toughen up and went to the rim and scored,” Gates noted. “We didn’t get tough enough going to the rim to score two. Then we didn’t get tough enough to stop them on their end. That 43-42, we’re ahead by one with the basketball with 3 or 4 minutes to go in the third quarter was the determining factor.”
Liberty outscored Millington 33-19 down the stretch to pick up the league victory and start 1-0.
“These district games mean a whole lot more,” Gates said. “How we’re going to go about it, we’re going to make practice a whole lot tougher. It’s going to have to be 2 hours of close the doors, turn the lights off and lets fight.
“When we go to Covington Friday night, it’s going to be a fight,” he continued. “When we go to Haywood High School next Tuesday, we’re walking into a hornet’s nest. We better have on some bee repellant or we’re going to get stung all night long.”
Gates said he will continue to preach toughness to his players, and the next lesson started the day after the Liberty game.
“We’re going to get in here tomorrow and Thursday and try to prepare them mentally to go play tough ball games,” he concluded. “Once we get that aspect, the mental toughness part, everybody will see a different Millington Basketball.”