Starkville head coach Greg Carter made a promise to his team.
If the Yellow Jackets were to win a Class 6A state championship, Carter told his players he’d show them he could still dunk a basketball himself.
Well, Carter better get ready to get up and jam, because the Jackets indeed have won it all.
Starkville defeated Meridian 61-46 on Saturday night at the Mississippi Coliseum to claim the school’s fourth-ever state title. It was Carter’s third with the Jackets after also winning crowns in 2010 and 2015. Even though Carter had lifted the golden ball before, he says this one was just as special.
“The only thing better than winning one is winning another one,” Carter said. “This never gets old. Doing it with different groups makes it so special. We won it in 2010 and I didn’t think I’d ever get that feeling again, then we won it in 2015 with (my son) Tyson and I thought, ‘It can’t get more special than this,' then to win it with this group of seniors that have been together for so long and been around me for so long … they’re almost like my kids, I don’t think I could ever get this feeling again. It’s magical.”
Starkville (30-1) used a stingy defense to capture the victory. The Jackets held Meridian (26-5) to just 32.7 percent shooting in the game.
Meanwhile offensively, Starkville was forced to use its inside game as the shots from the perimeter weren’t falling. The Jackets shot only 3-for-15 from 3-point range in the contest. However they found success getting to the rim and getting fouled. A total of 48 of Starkville’s 61 points came from either inside the paint or at the free-throw line.
Three Starkville players finished in double figures, including C Spire Player of the Game Zeke Cook, who had 15 points. Tyler Talley added 12 and Atavius Jones had 11 for the Jackets.
For much of the night, it looked like those performances might be enough to let Starkville cruise to the win. The Jackets held a 22-15 advantage at halftime, then stretched that out to a 15-point lead at 38-23 late in the third quarter. However Meridian wouldn’t give in.
Over the final moments of the third quarter and into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats went on a 17-4 run to pull within two points of Starkville at 42-40. It created tense moments for the Jackets.
“There was a lot of shaking,” Cook said with a chuckle. “There was a lot of arguing and stuff.
“It was scary.”
Odds are, Cook won’t remember much of that in the future though. That’s because Starkville rallied down the stretch and closed the contest on a 17-6 run of its own to ensure the golden ball would head northward and back home to Oktibbeha County.
“I told the guys before the game that this would be a game of runs,” Carter said. “We were going to make runs. They were going to make runs. The key to it was that when they make runs, we had to stay together and bounce back and respond. That’s what we did.”
The result was one that was unthinkable to Carter just a few months ago. Carter didn’t really foresee his team as a state title contender in the early portion of the season. Slowly but surely though, those thoughts changed.
“Me and the coaches, all of us knew we had so far to go back in November and December,” Carter said. “Come January, when we started to peak, it all started to come together and we started to believe and the kids started to really believe.”
That belief was the foundation for Saturday’s ultimate jubilation. Starkville closed its season on a 22-game winning streak. The last one of those victories of course being the most special because it meant the 2018-19 Jackets can forever call themselves champions.
The last win also held extra meaning too. Carter now has to go find his dunking shoes to fulfill his end of his bet with his players.
“Maybe they forgot about it, but I bet when we get back to Starkville, they’re going to be looking for it,” Carter said.
The head coach is spot on. The new state champs will gather around and watch their leader fly. It’ll just be another perk of winning it all.
“He has to dunk and he has to do it with two hands,” Cook said with a big smile. “If he don’t, he has to run suicides.”
Dunking or running, Carter can do it all with a smile because the shiny, new golden ball will be in the Starkville trophy case.