New Hope High School junior center Andrew Junkin admits the thought occurred to him in the second half of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A, Region 2 tournament championship game Friday night.
Senior teammate Terryonte Thomas had the same thought, but he had a different idea of what to do should the problem arise.
The “problem” was Jarkel Joiner, the state’s leading scorer Jarkel Joiner. If New Hope could find a way to keep Joiner in check, it felt good about its chances to beat Oxford to win the region title.
“We just had to play the best half of defense we have played all season,” Junkin said “I thought if we sold out and gave all of our focus to him, we could stop him, or at least contain him enough to win the game.”
Thomas approached the issue from the other angle.
“If he started scoring, I was simply going to have to start matching him,” Thomas said. “That was the only way.”
In the end, the Trojans contained Joiner (24 points) and Thomas (22 points) almost matched him to help New Hope pull off its biggest win of the season, a 58-52 decision before a packed house at Trojan Gym.
New Hope (20-9) celebrated its first region championship in four seasons. The Trojans will play host a second-round playoff game Saturday needing one win to get to Jackson. Oxford (22-7) will play host to a first-round playoff game Tuesday.
“I remember my eighth-grade year, when the team won the district championship,” Thomas said. “My goal was to win it my final year. To be able to bring it home your senior year, playing at home, in front of his big crowd, well it’s a special feeling. I never doubted my team. I knew we could do this.”
New Hope had lost the two regular-season meetings by four points apiece. Joiner had 45 points in a 71-67 win at New Hope and 30 in a 73-69 win at home. He is averaging a state-best 37.3 points per game.
New Hope senior center JaQuante Bell said the bad news was Joiner was a load, but the good news was the game plan wasn’t complicated.
“We just had to guard hard for four quarters,” Bell said. “We can be a good defensive team when we put our mind to it. We knew he would score some points. Our goal was to make every shot uncomfortable. We wanted to challenge and create that doubt. We made him uncomfortable. You could tell.”
Joiner was 9 of 32 from the field. He missed his first seven shots in the win at New Hope, but he quickly found a comfort level. Numerous Trojans played a part in denying Joiner the chance to get comfortable Friday night.
Junkin had seven of New Hope’s had nine blocked shots. The Trojans excelled with their help defense and challenged other Chargers to come up with a hot hand.
“Our defensive effort was really kind of amazing,” New Hope coach Drew McBrayer said. “We really gave help great (on Joiner). The biggest thing is they weren’t able to get anybody going. In the lane, (Junkin and Bell) were amazing. We totally dominated inside.”
New Hope overcame 20 turnovers and a 10-of-25 performance at the free throw line.
“Our plan was pretty simple,” Thomas said. “It didn’t matter how pretty it was, we just wanted the win. It was matter of slowing (Joiner) down and doing what we need to do on offense. We got a lift from a lot of guys. When we do that, we have a chance to beat anybody in the state.”
One of those lifts came from junior forward Tyler Stevenson, who had four of his six points in a game-turning 10-0 run. The run gave New Hope a 50-38 lead with 5 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.
“Tyler stepped up and made back-to-back key baskets,” McBrayer said. “(They were) as big a pair of baskets as we have had throughout the season.”
Stevenson said the chemistry on the team has allowed it to be on the doorstep of playing for a Class 5A State championship.
“This is just an incredible team,” Stevenson said. “We don’t get the game if Jay (Shinn) doesn’t come in off the bench and get two really big rebounds during that run. We don’t win if I am not in a position to make those shots or if JaQuante and Andrew don’t do what they do defensively. Terryonte was Terryonte. You don’t have to explain that. We feel like we are on the verge of a special run.”
Oxford didn’t going away without a fight. The Chargers stormed back with an 11-1 run to pull within 51-49 with 2:45 left.
During a timeout, McBrayer told Thomas “help us find a way.”
New Hope found a way. After suffering two heart-breaking losses to Oxford, a third crushing defeat wasn’t in the cards.
“You had to think (Joiner) was fixing to go off,” Bell said. “That’s human nature. We were just trying to hang on. Again, if we were going to go down, it was going to happen because he was making some amazing shots that shouldn’t go in.”
Thomas knew this was go-time. He drove aggressively to the lane and was fouled. The first free throw was good, while the second wasn’t. After a Joiner make, Bell drove to the lane for a spinning four-footer in the lane, drew a foul, and completed the three-point play to make it 55-51 with 37 seconds left.
As an overflow student section got ready to storm the court, the Trojans split three trips to the free-throw line to pull off the victory.
“We never make it easy,” McBrayer said. “I think the kids like it that way.”
Thomas had 22 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, and a block. Bell had 20 points and seven rebounds. Stevenson added nine rebounds and a block. Junkin added six points and 11 rebounds.
Drew Bianco had 12 points for Oxford.
“(Beating Oxford) has been a hard hurdle for us to get over,” Stevenson said. “I think this really takes our confidence to another level. Playing at home in the playoffs is huge.”
Next season, MHSAA realignment will move Oxford to Class 6A and New Hope to Class 4A.
“This was special,” McBrayer said. “I am glad we won the last one. What a way to send this rivalry out.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.