Stepping up to the challenge|[02/11/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 11, 2007

When Vicksburg and Warren Central meet for the third time this season in the Division 3-5A Tournament on Tuesday, each team will need big games from its stars to advance. WC’s Mario Luckett and Shone Ester, along with Vicksburg’s Jonathan Phelps, will all be counted on to provide plenty of offense.

Where the game will likely be decided, however, is further down the line. Although the stars have been the engines for the Gators and Vikings, players like Jeremy Smith and Jaybri Williams have been the wheels, helping their squads roll along or come to a grinding halt.

&#8220A lot of people figured out that Mario and Shone are our go-to people, and they’re leaving Jeremy open. And he’s knocking them down,” Warren Central coach Jesse Johnson said. &#8220(Smith) is going to be pivotal. I always said if we can get that third person we’ll be effective, and he’s that third person. He’s going to make or break us.”

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For the first half of the season, it was mostly break. Smith barely averaged six points a game, his shot wasn’t falling, and the Vikings were sputtering to a 6-10 start. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, things starting going right for the junior just after Christmas.

Smith scored 21 points in an 84-53 rout of Hazlehurst in the Northwest Rankin holiday tournament, and followed it up with 13 points in a win over Ponchatoula, La., the next day.

Over the next month, Smith’s confidence grew and he continued to pour in points. He went from cleaning up misses for easy layups to taking more jumpers. And as he improved, Johnson worked him into the offense more and more.

Smith has scored in double figures in eight of the Vikings’ 12 games since that first outburst against Hazlehurst, and nearly doubled his scoring average to about 12 points a game.

His increased production helped WC rip off seven wins in 10 games before it lost its last two heading into Friday night’s regular-season finale at Natchez.

&#8220The first half of the year, my shots weren’t falling. I couldn’t get into it until the Northwest Rankin Tournament. I just started taking my time and things started flowing right for me,” Smith said. &#8220It built my confidence back up. Once I got back in the groove I felt a lot more comfortable.”

Across town, at Vicksburg High, Williams was going through the same process – only in reverse. He started the season strong, then slumped along with the rest of the Gators.

Williams scored at least seven points in nine of Vicksburg’s first 14 games, when the Gators jumped to a 10-4 start. They’ve only gone 3-4 since New Year’s, when Williams has surpassed seven points just three times.

He did break out in time to score 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting – including 3-of-5 on 3-pointers – in a 67-55 win over Warren Central that secured the No. 2 seed in the division tournament for the Gators.

&#8220All I really did was hit open shots,” Williams said. &#8220They got me the ball when I was wide open. We all played good.”

Like good supporting cast members, both Williams and Smith deferred to their respective teams’ stars in evaluating their prospects for the division tournament. But they also pointed out the need for someone – whether themselves or another teammate – to step up and contribute.

&#8220It doesn’t matter if it’s me, John Qualls, Maurice (Williams). Phelps is a real good player, but we need somebody else,” Jaybri Williams said.

Warren Central’s Luckett pointed to Smith as a necessary ingredient to the Vikings’ success. When Ester and himself draw plenty of attention from defenses, Luckett said, it becomes imperative for Smith to step up and turn the Vikings’ big two into the big three.

&#8220Coach told him he’s the third man and he’s filled those shoes. He’s doing what he needs to do to score consistently,” Luckett said. &#8220When he’s scoring good, it takes a lot of pressure off of Shone and me.”