FRANKLIN FUEL: Skilled junior point guard, surging Academy set for state semifinal vs. seasoned Cole
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
DRIVING FORCE: Junior point guard Darion Franklin has helped lead Academy to the Class 3A state semifinals by averaging 18.2 points in the Bumblebees' five playoff games on their way to winning the Region III championship. The District 19-3A MVP contender leads 16th-ranked Academy (22-7), which is riding a 15-game win streak, in 3-point baskets, assists and steals. His season scoring average of 14.6 points per game ranks second on the team behind the 15.8 of senior wing Jaylin McWilliams. The Bees battle No. 5 San Antonio Cole (25-5), making its third straight state appearance, in a state semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hays High School's Oran Bales Gymnasium in Buda. The state championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at San Antonio's Alamodome. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BUDA – The four seniors who start for Academy's boys basketball team all provide major contributions for the 16th-ranked Bumblebees (22-7), the Class 3A Region III champions who have won 15 consecutive games entering their state semifinal against fifth-ranked perennial power San Antonio Cole (25-5) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hays High School's Oran Bales Gymnasium in Buda.
There's power forward Tanner Rambeau, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound four-year starter who gives Academy a strong inside presence and makes approximately 75 of his shots from the field.
There's smooth 6-3 wing Jaylin McWilliams, last season's District 19-3A Most Valuable Player whose natural scoring ability and skilled all-around play at both ends of the court are vital factors for the Bees.
There's 5-11 shooting guard Jerry Cephus, a lockdown 1-on-1 defender and proficient 3-point shooter who often explodes for torrid scoring streaks.
And there's 6-2 guard Kollin Mraz, an athletic, hard-nosed player whose knack for chasing down rebounds and loose balls and racking up steals and assists makes him extremely valuable even when he doesn't score much.
But as good and consistent as that senior quartet has been this season, it's not a stretch to say that the straw that stirs the proverbial drink for Academy's experienced, balanced squad is junior point guard Darion Franklin, the lone non-senior in the starting lineup.
After averaging 13.9 points per game during the regular season while leading the Bees in assists and steals, the 6-foot, 198-pound Franklin has been an even bigger force during Academy's five-game playoff march to its first state semifinal trip since it won the 2A state championship in 2002.
The two-year starter has scored 91 points (18.2 per game) in five postseason contests – making a team-best 11 3-point baskets – along with orchestrating the overall offense and playing aggressive defense.
And that's not even taking into account the emotional boost Franklin gives his Bees teammates with his confident leadership, competitive nature and playful personality.
“I mean, Darion does a ton. He's our best ball-handler, so we put a lot on his shoulders,” Academy fifth-year head coach James Holt said about Franklin, who earned first-team all-district status last season as a sophomore and is a top contender for this year's 19-3A MVP award. “If a team presses us (defensively), we pretty much put him up there by himself. We don't put three guys there. We want to get the ball in to Darion and we think he's going to make the right decision and he's going to be able to get the ball up and get us into our offense.
“But he's also the type of point guard that when he needs to score, he can score. When he needs to set it up, he can set people up. And then on the defensive end, he's led us in steals the whole year. I think he's averaging over four steals a game, and he's a real ball-hawk. He really finds the ball, he's got great hands and he's got really good instincts on defense. He sees the play before the guy makes the pass, and that leads to a lot of steals.”
Rambeau was the 19-3A MVP as a sophomore in 2019, when Franklin earned a late-season promotion to varsity for a 25-win Bees team that grabbed the first of three straight district championships and reached the Region III quarterfinals. Rambeau said Franklin has made large strides since the point guard helped drive Academy to a 30-7 record and another regional quarterfinal trek a season ago.
“He improved a lot since last year, surprisingly. He's just so intense. He likes to get loud, and he's out there. It helps us with momentum and the energy of the team,” Rambeau said about Franklin, who's also a standout linebacker and running back in football and a starting infielder in baseball. “I think Darion's a jack of all trades. He can pass, score, shoot, he can play defense. I don't think he has any real weaknesses in his game.”
Franklin, who's helped Academy go 26-0 in district play the last two seasons, said it's been easy for him to mesh and play with the four older starters along with the Bees' other senior, reserve forward Tyler Lambert.
“I feel like they all trust me,” Franklin said during practice Monday afternoon. “I feel like a broken record, but we've been playing together since we were younger. They know my abilities and I know all of theirs, and we just like to have fun.”
Asked about next season, when he'll be Academy's only returning starter, Franklin looked out at his teammates on the court, smiled and said, “It's going to be quiet. No Jerry, no annoying Jaylin, no Kollin who gets mad at everything, no Tanner instigating.”
CORNER POCKET: Academy junior point guard Darion Franklin (2) fires a 3-point shot over Franklin defender Hayden Helton during the 16th-ranked Bumblebees' 69-47 win over the No. 17 Lions in a Class 3A Region III quarterfinal Feb. 27 in Lorena. Academy players looking on are seniors Kollin Mraz (1), Tanner Rambeau (25) and Jerry Cephus. The 6-foot, 198-pound Franklin, a two-year starter and an All-District 19-3A first-team selection as a sophomore, has made 11 3-pointers during five playoff wins and delivered a team-high 24 points in Academy's 70-69, double-overtime victory against No. 7 New Waverly in a regional semifinal last Friday in Madisonville. The Bees (22-7) battle No. 5 San Antonio Cole (25-5) in a state semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hays High School in Buda. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
During the playoffs, Franklin scored 18 points against Teague, 21 against Scurry-Rosser and 17 against No. 17 Franklin as Academy finally advanced past the third round for the first time since its 2002 state title.
Then in last weekend's Region III tournament in Madisonville, Franklin scored 24 points Friday night as the Bees rallied to defeat No. 7 New Waverly 70-69 in double overtime, snapping the Bulldogs' 26-game winning streak. Recovering well after that grueling classic, he contributed 11 points in Saturday afternoon's regional final as Academy beat No. 11 Winnie East Chambers 68-58, which came in with a 27-0 record.
“It's just exciting, man. It's a dream come true, is all I can say. It's crazy how we built to this from 6 years old to now, playing together. It's crazy,” Franklin said. “I feel that we wanted it more. We were the underdogs coming in. The poll (on Twitter) said East Chambers (had a) 59 percent (chance to win the four-team regional tournament), and that kind of sparked us. We wanted the game more. We wanted to win. We wanted to come here.”
Said Rambeau about Academy finally achieving its long-term goal of advancing to state, and what comes next: “It's really a cool thing. Ever since we were little, this has been the goal. I still don't think the job is done. We're not satisfied.”
To extend their season beyond Tuesday night, Franklin and Academy must find a way to get past a tradition-rich Cole program that's accustomed to competing at this stage of the state playoffs. Head coach Noe Cantu's Cougars were Region IV finalists in 2018, then reached the 2019 state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Dallas Madison.
Cole got back to state a year ago and beat Peaster 58-44 in a semifinal at San Antonio's Alamodome, but the 33-6 Cougars never got the opportunity to avenge their season-ending 2019 loss. Because of uncertainty surrounding the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic, the University Interscholastic League suspended its state tournament last March 12, and the 3A state championship showdown between Cole and Madison never happened.
“We're very excited, because we didn't get to play our championship game last year due to COVID. So we're extra excited because we get to this year, and hopefully we go farther than we did last year,” Cole junior guard Trey Blackmore told San Antonio's KSAT 12 News said after the Cougars beat No. 25 Santa Rosa 67-48 on Saturday to win their third straight Region IV crown and push their winning streak to 19 games.
Cole began this season at No. 1 in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches 3A state rankings, even after 7-foot junior center Vince Iwuchukwu – a four-star recruit – transferred to a school in Indiana. Before the Cougars went 14-0 in District 26-3A, they recorded victories against two 6A opponents, two 5A foes and two 4A squads.
All five of Cole's defeats occurred within a 17-day span in December and included losses to 6A opponents San Antonio Johnson, San Antonio Wagner and Converse Judson and a setback against 4A No. 1-ranked Dallas Oak Cliff Faith Family Academy. The Cougars' only loss to a fellow 3A team was 66-59 against Corpus Christi London, which Cole avenged by edging No. 4 London 50-48 in overtime in a regional semifinal last Friday after Cole had led by 10 points in the fourth quarter.
The 6-3 Blackmore and 5-10 Silas Livingston – both junior guards – scored 16 points apiece in the Cougars' regional final romp over Santa Rosa. Senior Elijah Sexton, a 6-3 center, is Cole's premier interior player.
“They're a good team and they've been to the state tournament the past couple years,” Rambeau said about Cole, which is making its eighth state appearance in program history. “They do have a big, athletic player and they have really good guards.”
Said Holt: “(Livingston and Blackmore) are really good. Both of them can shoot and drive. They've got a guy who's awesome on the boards and they've got a little bit of size, so they're a complete team in my opinion.”
Cole's biggest claim to fame is that it's the alma mater of Shaquille O'Neal, the physically dominant center who powered the unbeaten Cougars to the 3A state championship in 1989 and went on to become a larger-than-life NBA superstar and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
BIG-GAME PREPARATION: Academy junior point guard Darion Franklin (left), senior forward Tanner Rambeau, senior wing Jaylin McWilliams, senior forward Tyler Lambert and senior guard Jerry Cephus practice shooting on Monday afternoon as the Region III champion Bumblebees (22-7) get ready to play Region IV champion San Antonio Cole (25-5) in a Class 3A state semifinal at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hays High School's Oran Bales Gymnasium in Buda. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Similar to how Academy felt entering its high-stakes battles with New Waverly and East Chambers last weekend, Franklin said the Bees are focused on playing their style of game and their best basketball more than adjusting to contend with how Cole plays, although the Cougars' talent and pedigree certainly warrant much respect.
“I haven't really watched them on film, but I'm never going to underestimate a team that's in the Final Four,” Franklin said. “But at the end of the day, I'll take all of my guys over theirs any day.”
Rambeau said Academy's desire made the difference in winning the regional tournament.
“I feel like we just wanted it so badly,” he said. “We came out there and did whatever it took to win the games.”
In a normal year, the Academy-Cole state semifinal would be played in the Alamodome's cavernous confines. But because of COVID-19-related factors, the UIL mandated that semifinal opponents make their own arrangements. Academy athletic director Jared Hunt said it was difficult to find a suitable facility that was willing to host the Academy-Cole duel on short notice, but on Sunday the schools were able to secure Hays High School, an 87-mile drive from Academy and a 56-mile trek from Cole.
Hunt said that because of COVID-19 guidelines that require strict social distancing, attendance at Oran Bales Gymnasium will be limited to 455 total spectators, which is approximately 25 percent of capacity. Tickets for the side of Academy, the designated home team, sold out within a few minutes of becoming available online at noon Monday.
“Usually the state semifinal game is always set up at the Alamodome and you're good to go, but when the UIL told us a few months ago what it was going to be (due to COVID-19), we knew it was going to difficult (to make venue arrangements) for the regionals and the state semis,” said Hunt, who was a backup junior guard on Academy's 33-3 team that won the 2A state championship in 2002. “We looked all in the Austin and Round Rock area and Georgetown, and we landed on a couple but then we had some hiccups with that over the weekend.
“Williamson County and Travis County have some of the stricter rules on capacities. We made sure that the families of our players and our coaches (received tickets). We're going to be close to 25 percent capacity. It's not ideal, it's not what we wanted, it's not what we thought we were going to be getting. It's none of that, but I told Coach Holt and the players, 'It is what it is. It's a gym with 10-foot goals and your family's going to be there. Let's win, punch our ticket (to the state final) and people can come.'”
The Academy-Cole winner will advance to the 3A state championship game at 2 p.m. Friday at the Alamodome. Tuesday's other state semifinal pits No. 2 Brock (29-3) of Region I against No. 10 Tatum (24-3) of Region II at 7 p.m. at Corsicana High School. Brock beat Academy 63-51 on Nov. 24 in Cleburne, though the Bees were without McWilliams at that point of the season. Tatum knocked out No. 1 Madison 61-54 in a regional final Saturday.
Although playing the state semifinal at the Alamodome might have been perceived as an advantage for Cole based on its proximity and recent state tournament experience, Academy doesn't necessarily think that playing at Hays – a standard-sized high school gym at essentially a neutral location – will give the Bees any edge.
“I don't think either of us has an advantage pertaining to where the game is. I think they're just as ready to play as we are, and we have to do whatever it takes to win,” Rambeau said. “It's no big deal. It's still going to be a basketball game. Somebody's going to end up winning and somebody's going to end up losing.”
Holt was a part of five state tournament teams during his 11 seasons as an assistant coach at then-2A Ponder, which was the runner-up in 2006 and captured three consecutive championships from 2008-10 before adding a fourth crown in 2014, all at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center in Austin.
Holt said he's much more focused on helping Academy's players earn their first state championship ring than he is concerned about adding a fifth title ring to his personal collection, which is packed away somewhere. And for his Bees to get past Cole's stellar squad and make it to Friday afternoon's state final in San Antonio, Holt said they'll stick to the winning formula that's worked well enough to get them this far.
“We've got to play really good defense. To win at this level, you've got to be a really good defensive team,” Holt said. “Offensively, we've got to take care of the ball and get good shots. I think if we do those things, we'll put ourselves in position to be successful.”