Gator seniors ready for long-awaited trip to Coliseum
Published 9:24 pm Saturday, March 8, 2014
Three years ago, La’Darrie Ward and Edward Davis stood on the court at the Mississippi Coliseum shooting baskets and taking in the scene.
Both players were freshmen at the time. While a senior-laden lineup took Vicksburg High to the Class 6A championship game, Ward and Davis were just along for the ride. They’d received call-ups from the ninth-grade team, but neither played in the state tournament games at the Coliseum.
“When we went to the court to warm up, me and Red said we wanted to come back to this place,” Ward said. “Now we finally made it.”
Have they ever.
Ward and Davis are two of the four senior guards — along with De’Angelo Richardson and De’Vonta Brisco — who have formed the core of the team that will make its fourth state tournament appearance in seven seasons when it takes on Pascagoula in a Class 5A semifinal Monday afternoon.
Their roles have evolved over the years. Each one has had moments in the spotlight, and some have willingly taken a step back to help the team. That unselfishness has created a dangerous, championship-caliber team on which any player can carry the load on a given night.
“I feel like we have the best guards in the state,” Davis said. “If they don’t have a big man, it’s hard for them to stay in front of us.”
The Gator guards, whether they were ready for it or not, had a lot put on them when they stepped into the starting lineup in November 2011. The team that lost to Meridian in the state finals the previous spring had been gutted by graduation. The entire seven-man rotation had moved on.
A new, smaller group took up the mantle. The 2011-12 Gators lost 10 of their last 11 games to finish 10-18, but reached the Class 6A satellite round before losing 49-46 to Desoto Central.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Davis said. “We had to show up. People expected us to do what Mike (Ammons) and them did.”
Davis was the breakout star of that 2011-12 team. He averaged 12.2 points and 4.6 assists per game and was the most complete player on a growing team. At the time, coach Dellie C. Robinson said Davis had a chance to be the best point guard he’d ever coached. And, as his career went on, Davis embraced a new role.
Instead of carrying the scoring load, Davis became a distributor. His scoring average dropped to 7.8 ppg last season and 9.0 ppg this season, but his assist total climbed. He also became the team’s best defender, to the point that Robinson left him alone on All-America guard Malik Newman of Callaway a number of times in their four meetings this season.
Unlike some superstars who refuse to give up the spotlight, Davis said he was happy to share it when he saw his teammates coming into their own.
“It wasn’t hard when I found out I had scorers on my team. I knew I didn’t have to score. I could work on defense and passing,” Davis said. “Coming from our sophomore year, more players started to believe in their shots. So instead of having to score 25 a game, I can assist them.”
Ward was also OK with taking a lesser role. He’s been one of the team’s top reserves, a player whose job is to keep things humming while the starters get a breather.
One of Ward’s best assets is his shooting touch. He’s a capable 3-point specialist who fits in alongside Davis, Richardson and Brisco.
“I know I can score, so I come off the bench to take the pressure off D-Lo and Brisco,” Ward said. “Coach said whatever shot I’m comfortable with, to just take it.”
That included one of the biggest of the Gators’ season.
Late in the second overtime of their North State semifinal against Center Hill, with Brisco and Davis both fouled out, it was Ward’s time to shine. He told Richardson to look for him in the corner for a 3, and when the opportunity arose he made the shot. It put the Gators ahead 71-68, and they never trailed again. Ward’s shot was a backbreaker that punched Vicksburg’s ticket to Jackson.
“I felt like Michael Jordan when he hit that last shot in Utah,” Ward said with a laugh.
While Davis and Ward did their part by stepping back, Brisco and Richardson have made the Gators better by stepping up.
Richardson, a deadly accurate 3-point shooter, has led the team in scoring each of the past three seasons. His trademark is a lightning-quick release that has developed through natural ability and plenty of film study and hard work. It’s also a necessity for a 5-foot-10 player who often has to get his shot off against much taller defenders.
“I used to look up You Tube videos on how to shoot, and most of the best players had quick releases. So I tried to make that part of my game,” Richardson said. “It’s a big weapon. If it was a little bit slower I’d have a lot of shots blocked.”
As the team’s best scorer, Richardson has often been the Gators’ metronome. Others can pick up the slack if he’s struggling, but when he starts hitting his shot it kicks the team into high gear.
In a district tournament win over Pearl, Richardson hit three 3-pointers and 11 consecutive points total early in the second half to turn the game into a rout. In the satellite round against Ridgeland, it was Richardson again who hit a pair of 3s to kickstart the Gators’ rally from an eight-point deficit with six minutes to play.
“He’s still the man, no doubt about it,” Robinson said. “When he gets on a roll like that, it changes everything. When he starts hitting 3s, we pick it up on defense and everything else gets going.”
Richardson has been a steady force throughout his high school career, but it’s Brisco who has emerged as perhaps the team’s most valuable player this season.
The 5-foot-9 guard averaged just 4.5 points per game last season and was largely a complementary piece. Romeo Carter, who averaged 8.9 ppg the last two seasons, served as the third member of the Gators’ “Big Three.”
Carter, however, moved to Florida last summer. The Gators needed a new third wheel, and Brisco accepted the challenge.
This season he’s averaging 12.3 points and has become just as dangerous a scorer as Richardson and Davis. Brisco hit a key 3-pointer during the comeback win against Ridgeland, and also got the nod to take the last shot. He ended up driving and dishing to teammate Kris Walker, who was fouled and hit a pair of free throws with 3.9 seconds left for the winning points.
“Romeo left us and went to Florida, and Brisco has filled that role. That’s why we’re still playing, is because of Brisco,” Robinson said. “He’s the quickest guy we’ve got on the floor and his mismatches are the mismatches we want. We put the ball in his hands when we need a basket.”
The transformation from role player to vital cog was not an easy one for Brisco. Earlier in his career, he would often draw Robinson’s fury in practice for a variety of mistakes.
“He used to be the person Coach Rob would get on the most,” Davis said.
Asked what Robinson’s anger entailed, Brisco just smiled and said, “I don’t think you can print that.”
Through those tough times, however, Brisco said he knew his coach had good intentions.
“Coach Rob has always been hard on me, but I always knew it was for the better,” Brisco said. “I’m very proud of myself. I felt like I could’ve done it in past years, and Coach gave me a chance to break out my senior year.”
Now Brisco and the rest of the Gators (18-8) are hoping they can break through. This is their fourth trip to the state tournament since 2008, but they haven’t won a championship since 2003. Reaching the Coliseum is an accomplishment to savor, but winning it all will require two of their best performances.
Monday’s semifinal opponent, Pascagoula (24-6), is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the state tournament. If Vicksburg can get by them, either Laurel (20-12) or Callaway (29-1) await in Friday night’s championship game.
Callaway, which has beaten Vicksburg four times this season, is the odds-on favorite to win its third consecutive state title. Even Robinson admitted the other three teams in the Class 5A final four are likely playing for second place.
“You hate to say that, but the team that finishes second is going to be just as proud as Callaway is finishing first,” Robinson said.
Before Callaway emerged as a superpower, it was this group of Gators who were pegged for greatness. They’d won league championships as eighth- and ninth-graders, then exceeded expectations in their first varsity season. Last year, a buzzer-beater loss to Murrah in the North State semifinals brought a screeching halt to what was shaping up as a potential championship run.
This season has seen them win a pair of hotly contested playoff games to get back to the Coliseum and fulfill the desire they had three years ago. Getting to this point, no matter the outcome this week, is a spectacular end to a long, hard road.
“I feel like we’re living up to expectations,” Richardson said. “Our ninth-grade year, people expected us to get to the Coliseum again, and it feels good to live up to those expectations.”