HOT SPRINGS - When the season began, Magnolia really didn’t know what to expect after announcing that two 9th graders would be in its starting lineup. Twenty-nine games later, the Panthers got their answer when the pair of fantastic freshmen guided them to their first state basketball title in 22 years.Gallery: Class 4A State Champions!
“Make no mistake about it. These two guys certainly came in and did their jobs. But this championship was a total team effort,” Magnolia head coach Dyun Long said during the postgame press conference after beating Little Rock Mills 78-76 in overtime in the Class 4A State Finals at Hot Springs.
“This state championship means a lot to this team and the fans of Magnolia. I think the proof was in the crowd,” said Long. Of the 6,000 plus fans that witnessed the fast-pace, back-and-forth action, it was estimated that between 3,500 and 4,000 were from Magnolia. Several sportswriters indicated it was the best championship game played during the three-day championship weekend.
Long said he had a feeling the Panthers could be special, but kept in mind they were young and learning each time they played.
“I asked a lot of these young men and I can be overly tough at times. They responded to me and the other coaches; the reason we are here is because of the way they responded. I just got on the train and rode along,” said Long. Prior to the game, Long said he told his players to simply “live in the moment” because they don’t come around that often.
“Look around and see the support. Play for each other and enjoy it. Just play harder than the other team and whatever happens, we will be satisfied with it,” he added. “That’s been our motto and we will continue to do that.”
Freshman Derrian Ford, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, led the team in scoring with 28 points, while classmate Colby Garland added 21. Senior Markeveon Strickland, who was 3-for-5 from 3-point range finished with 15. Senior Kadyn Roach and junior Braelyn Beasley had seven apiece, but Beasley also pulled down 15 rebounds (six offensive).
Ford, Garland and Roach were named to the all-tournament team, while Ford was the only Panther to be named All-State.
According to Long, Ford and Garland are two of the most mature freshmen he has been around.
As for them being motivated after winning state titles as 9th graders, he said both love the game and want to keep improving.
“They will probably be in the gym tomorrow, because that’s who they are,” he said.
Mills coach Raymond Cooper said, “They (Panthers) made one or two more plays than we did. Though they were smaller, they were aggressive and quick. They beat us to the boards. For a freshman, the kid (Ford) is really, really tough. As far as freshmen go, I don’t think there’s anyone one better.”
It was Ford’s bucket with 21 seconds remaining in regulation that sent the game in overtime. Tied 76-76 and eight seconds left in the extra period, Beasley’s tipped in a missed Ford shot that provided the winning points.
When asked if losing to Monticello in region helped the Panthers’ chances in the state tournament, Long said he doesn’t know if it was the best thing or not.
“I think it allowed the stars to line up for us and helped in that regards. I wouldn’t have mind playing Mills on our home floor. We would’ve taken that challenge and I don’t know what the outcome would have been. But it is what it is, and I’m pleased with this end result,” explained Long.
“Coach Cooper has a real talented bunch that plays hard. They play with a purpose. Again, I think the stars lined up for us against them and we made plays when we had to,” added Long.
Speaking of plays, someone stepped up every time the Panthers needed a key bucket or defensive stop.
Trailing 23-16 at the start of the second quarter, a 3-pointer by Roach at 7:06 mark kept the Panthers from falling farther behind.
Down 25-21 two minutes later, Magnolia used a 13-3 run over the next five minutes and didn’t allow the Comets a field goal during the stretch.
Mill’s Kevin Cross, who had 24 points, and Orion Virden, who finished with 22, gave the Comets their only points during the five-minute stretch, which came from the free-throw line. In the second period alone, Magnolia had 10 points in the paint and nine came off second-chance efforts.
There were several other key moments that probably went unnoticed, such as Strickland’s five unanswered points during the final 32 seconds of the third period. His free throws and a 3-pointer at the buzzer gave the Panthers a 56-47 lead.
With four seconds on the clock and Strickland having just picked up his fourth foul, Long had junior Kyle Carver at the scorer’s table ready to check in. The coach had second thoughts, summoned Carver back to the bench and Strickland ended up hitting the long-range jumper as the buzzer sounded.
Carver, who re-entered the game when Roach fouled out late in the fourth quarter, gave the Panthers 14 quality minutes. He had four rebounds and two key blocked shots.
Senior Korey Fulton got oonly one minute of playing time in the game, which came in the fourth quarter when Garland was injured. It was his sacrifice of taking a charge that also impacted the outcome.
Long said this season has been an unbelievable ride and a dream come true.
Roach, who told reporters he opted to put off a shoulder surgery to play basketball, said he knew the Panthers could win a state title if they played together and played hard.
“We fought hard and won,” he said. Long added it was 22 years to the date that Roach’s father, Kerry, won a state championship with now Athletic Director Marvin Lindsey Jr.
Ford said winning the title felt great, adding “All the hard work in the offseason and during the summer paid off.”
Ford, Roach and Garland all thanked God for what had taken place.
“I know I thank God for this and the way it worked out,” said Garland.