Nothing Russ Whiteside did worked.
The Heritage Academy boys basketball coach paced the sideline and looked to his right. The clock didn’t go any faster.
Whiteside sat on the bench. He didn’t want to look at the clock on the left wall, but he couldn’t help it. That one wasn’t going any faster than the other one.
Regardless of where or how Whiteside gazed at the scoreboards Saturday night he was doomed to wait until the final seconds ticked off and accept what the final numbers said.
On this night, Whiteside could breathe a sigh of relief, as Heritage Academy 7 of 10 free throws in the final 1 minute, 14 seconds to clinch a 54-37 victory against Canton Academy in the championship game of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 tournament in Columbus.
Eli Acker scored a team-high 14 points to lead a balanced scoring attack that helped the Patriots (22-10) clinch the No. 1 seed from the district.
After the game, while the players posed for pictures with the championship trophy and a World Wrestling Entertainment title belt Acker’s father, John, purchased at an event in Tupelo, Whiteside finally could relax and not have to worry about the clock.
“Their team is so well coached and they play so hard that you don’t ever feel good about a lead you have because you know there is never any letdown,” Whiteside said. “My hat is off to them They have a bunch that just fights from the start to the finish. We had our work cut out for us and we got the job done.”
After a 3-pointer by Carter Putt gave Heritage Academy a 32-18 lead, Canton Academy used a 12-2 run to cut the deficit to 34-30. Brayden Brumfield’s layup with 1:38 left in the third quarter put Heritage Academy in a position where it needed an answer. Acker, who was double-teamed all night, provided the response as he took a pass from the right wing and turned for a hook shot. A help defender moved from the left side into the lane in an attempt to cut Acker off, but the sophomore center turned his shoulder enough to get a good look at the rim and finish.
“It was pretty difficult (to score against the double teams), and I had to work around they were trying to take charges and flop on me, so I couldn’t lower my shoulder,” Acker said.
Dontae Gray (12 points) hit 6 of 8 free throws in the final 1:14 to put the game out of reach. Gray picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 40-second span and went to the bench with 5:15 to play. Instead of panicking without their senior point guard, Reid Huskison (six points) provided a lift off the bench. Still, Canton Academy battled back from a 10-point deficit to cut Heritage Academy’s lead to 43-37 with 2:13 to play. The Panthers missed their final five field goals and committed one turnover.
Acker came through again when Canton Academy cut the deficit to six in the fourth quarter. This time, he scored on a layup and Josh Neal followed with a layup off a pass from Gray to kick the lead back to 47-37 with 1:37 left.
“We just had to keep fighting and couldn’t give up,” Acker said. “They beat us down at their place and we knew we couldn’t let that happen again, so we just had to keep putting it on me.
“We were a lot more focused (from the loss to Canton Academy at Canton).”
The victory earned Heritage Academy a measure of revenge from a 50-49 loss to Canton Academy on Jan. 26. Heritage Academy won the first meeting 46-38.
“I am so proud of our guys and their effort and resiliency,” Whiteside said. “They could have shut this thing down at halftime Thursday night when they were down 15. They had another opportunity to have a letdown and shut it down tonight when we were up 14 and they came back and cut it to four. I am so proud of my guys. I am just looking forward to, hopefully, the next three weeks of getting to continue to play basketball and to coach them.”
Gray said a raucous student section gave the Patriots a lift on their home court that proved to be a big difference.
“Our student section came out and gave us some extra energy and we just played defense. We kept playing defense and we executed a little better on offense” Gray said.
Gray said the Patriots are “jelling” on defense thanks to improved communication. Still, he understands how Whiteside could be anxious after seeing his players miss a few too many free throws.
Two nights ago, though, free throws were the furthest thing from the minds of the Heritage Academy players. Heritage Academy trailed Leake Academy 28-13 at halftime and could have went quietly into the night. Instead, they were on the court celebrating with their classmates following another rousing home win.
“We just said we weren’t going to lose,” Gray said when asked what was said at halftime to rally the team against Leake Academy. “We just kept that mentality and are going to come out and play our ball.
“It feels great (to win a district title). We have been working toward this all season. We just have to keep it going.”
n In the other boys game, Leake Academy beat Starkville Academy 78-63 to earn the No. 3 seed for the North AAA tournament.
Leake Academy used a 29-14 fourth quarter to seal the deal.
Noah Methvin had 15 points and six rebounds for the Volunteers. Brady Richardson had 14 points and eight rebounds, Trey Tyler had 13 points, and Raegan Richardson had 11 points, five rebounds, and six assists.
n In the girls championship game, Leake Academy rallied from a 23-20 halftime deficit to earn a 43-34 victory.
Mary Peyton Passons led the Lady Volunteers with 12 points, eight rebounds, and two assists. Milla Davis had eight points, six rebounds, and three assists. Rush Brown had six points and five rebounds.
Leake Academy clinched the victory thanks to a 14-6 fourth quarter.
The North AAA tournament at North Delta Academy in Batesville will start Tuesday or Wednesday.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.