After the Columbus High School girls basketball team lost to Greenville in the first round of the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs on Feb. 25, 2019, sophomore point guard DJ Jackson approached Falcons coach Yvonne Hairston.
“Coach,” promised a disappointed Jackson, “I got you.”
The next day, Jackson walked with determination into the Falcons’ gym, ready to make amends.
“She just got busy, and she never let up,” Hairston said.
As a junior, Jackson spearheaded a Columbus team that won the first state championship in girls basketball in school history. This season, her senior year, Jackson did her best to lead the Falcons on another deep playoff run that ended in the Class 5A quarterfinal round.
Now, the player Hairston called a “true point guard” will continue her basketball career. On Monday in the same gym where she trained relentlessly after that painful loss, Jackson signed her national letter of intent to play for East Mississippi Community College.
“True point guard is a lost art, so I think that East Mississippi is really getting a treasure, a jewel with her,” Hairston said.
Acting as a coach on the floor, Jackson can interpret various defensive looks and direct her teammates with ease, but that’s not all she brings to the table.
“Not only that, she can score,” Hairston said. “She can actually shoot the ball really well, not just facilitate it.”
Jackson, who hopes to play Division I basketball eventually, had interest from several junior colleges around the state. But EMCC coach Sharon Thompson was persistent, even showing up to the Falcons’ preseason game at Choctaw Central as well as several regular-season and playoff contests to recruit Jackson.
The Falcons senior said she knows she can learn a lot from Thompson, a former Mississippi State standout who went on to a pro career.
“I know she’s willing to help me work regardless of the circumstances,” Jackson said. “I know she’s willing to get me to where I need to be, just like how Coach Hairston got me this scholarship.”
Jackson said she liked the EMCC campus in Scooba and the success of the program, which won the MACJC championship last season.
“It’s just a very nice spot out in the country. There isn’t much to do, but I don’t need much to do — I’m just going to be there to stay focused, do what I need to do and just be successful,” she said.
Through four years on the Falcons’ varsity team, Jackson has done exactly that. Hairston said the young guard showed the maturity needed to play as a freshman. After the Columbus team led by current Alabama State guard Hannah White was ousted by Greenville in Jackson’s sophomore season, she slid into a starting spot as a junior.
That season, Jackson worked with “duo partner” Aniya Saddler to lead the Falcons to a title. Columbus beat Brookhaven 55-51 in the Class 5A championship game in Oxford and made a memory Jackson will remember forever.
“It’s something that I can take back from here,” she said. “It’s something that I can always hold onto because I feel like I accomplished a thing. I feel like that really set the bar at this school for the girls basketball association here.”
And when Holmes County Central dealt Columbus a rare home loss to end the Falcons’ season Feb. 26, Jackson was in the midst of things. She orchestrated a stirring comeback in the third quarter, but when it became clear the Falcons couldn’t hold off the Jaguars, Jackson approached Hairston with sorrow on her face.
“Coach, I’m so sorry, but I tried,’” she said.
Jackson had tried to will Columbus to a win, and she couldn’t quite manage.
“She was so passionate, and she wanted it for the team more than for herself,” Hairston said.
The coach said Jackson has been the definition of a student-athlete at Columbus, balancing classwork and practice despite a hybrid school schedule. At EMCC, where Thompson has fostered a “books and ball” attitude, those same characteristics will serve her well in Scooba.
“She just does what she’s supposed to do,” Hairston said. “She’s just a great person to be around.”
And it won’t just be Jackson heading to EMCC. On Monday, senior teammate Zaria Heard signed a scholarship to attend the school and be a manager for the Lions’ women’s team. In her role, she’ll get to dress out and attend practices with the team, so she won’t be far from Jackson when both graduate later this spring.
“I feel like it’s a blessing for me and her,” Heard said. “We’re real close. I feel like I push her more, and she pushes me. We just keep each other on track.”
Heard said she liked EMCC and how the Lions’ program is organized, but she reflected on her time as a member of the Falcons for the past four seasons.
“It was a good experience,” she said. “If you’ve got somebody who wants to come here, I’d say this is the place that you’ll want to come.”