LUMP OF COLE: McWilliams' fouls hinder Academy in state semi; Livingston, Blackmore key Cougars' win
SEMIFINAL SHOWDOWN: San Antonio Cole junior guard Silas Livingston takes a jump shot over Academy senior defender Tanner Rambeau during the fifth-ranked Cougars' 59-50 win against the No. 16 Bumblebees in a Class 3A state semifinal Tuesday night at Buda Hays. Looking on for Academy are Darion Franklin (2), Chris Preddie (23), Jerry Cephus (11) and Kollin Mraz. Livingston scored a game-high 22 points as Cole (26-5), winner of 20 straight games, advanced to Friday's state championship game against No. 10 Tatum at San Antonio's Alamodome. Making their first state semifinal trip since 2002, the Region III champion Bees (22-8) had their 15-game winning streak snapped. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BUDA – Jaylin McWilliams and Jerry Cephus delivered outstanding performances last Saturday afternoon in Madisonville, with the senior guards producing a combined seven 3-point baskets and 45 points to help Academy beat previously undefeated Winnie East Chambers 68-58 for the Class 3A Region III boys basketball championship.
The 16th-ranked Bumblebees didn't necessarily need both McWilliams and Cephus to play extremely well in Tuesday night's state semifinal showdown against No. 5 San Antonio Cole at Hays High School's Oran Bales Gymnasium. But at the same time. Academy couldn't afford for both of them to have a subpar game.
With Cephus and the foul-plagued McWilliams totaling only 11 points and Cole all-region junior guards Silas Livingston and Trey Blackmore scoring a combined 40 points, such a large disparity was too much for the Bees to overcome.
After McWilliams fouled out with 6:46 remaining, Academy still had a prime opportunity to win and got as close as three points during a feisty fourth quarter but never could get over the top, with Livingston's 10-point final period helping the Cougars secure a 59-50 victory that propelled them into the state championship game and ended the Bees' 15-game winning streak and stellar season.
“It was a battle of two really good teams. I think we're a good team; I think they're a really good team. They've got great players; we've got great players. So it came down to I think they executed what they needed to do a little bit better,” Academy fifth-year head coach James Holt said after emerging from the Bees' tearful postgame locker room. “But at the end of the day, our kids kept fighting. We'd get down, then we'd have a run. We showed our heart and our fight. We just didn't make the plays I guess when we needed to make them and they did, so hat's off to them. They're a great team.
"I think we still could have won with (McWilliams and Cephus) having off nights, but I think we probably would have had to play a little bit better defense and maybe get to the basket a few more times and finish. I thought we had some points that we left out there because we didn't finish at the rim at times, but part of that is (Cole's) defense."
After scoring a team-leading 16 points for District 19-3A champion Academy (22-8), junior point guard Darion Franklin credited Region IV champ Cole (26-5) – making its third straight state semifinal trip – for grabbing the game when it was there for the taking and lamented the impact that McWilliams' foul problems had on the Bees' overall play.
“We didn't execute. They wanted it more than we did. They battled for the loose balls, they made free throws, they didn't play as a one-guy team. They played all together,” said Franklin, who made a 30-foot 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to trim Academy's deficit to 40-35. “I'd say it came down to defense. They've got some really good guards (Livingston and Blackmore), and they're outstanding, I'd say. We lost one of our good brothers (McWilliams), and it hurts. He plays very good defense and he's a leader.”
Franklin shared this season's District 19-3A Most Valuable Player award with McWilliams, who won it last year as a junior. Franklin and McWilliams were Texas Association of Basketball Coaches 3A All-Region III selections this season along with senior forward Tanner Rambeau.
MAN ON THE MOVE: Academy junior point guard Darion Franklin shoots a runner in the lane over San Antonio Cole defenders Adreaell Ray (4) and Elijah Sexton during the Bumblebees' 59-50 loss to the Cougars in a Class 3A state semifinal Tuesday night at Hays High School's Oran Bales Gymnasium in Buda. District 19-3A Co-MVP Franklin scored 10 of his team-high 16 points in the second half for Region III champion Academy, which got 10 points from senior forward Tanner Rambeau. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Making its fourth state semifinal appearance in program history, Academy never led Cole but never trailed by more than 10 points. The Bees got 10 points from Rambeau, nine from McWilliams and seven from reserve junior guard Chris Preddie, who received increased playing time because of McWilliams' foul trouble and performed well.
The 6-foot-3 McWilliams, Academy's leading scorer who poured in 26 points against East Chambers, kept the Bees' season alive in last Friday's regional semifinal with a buzzer-beating layup that forced overtime in a 70-69, double-OT win over No. 7 New Waverly. Against Cole, McWilliams was called for his second foul with 1:49 remaining in the first quarter, stayed in the game and incurred his third foul on a reach-in only 1:10 into the second quarter. He went to the bench but just for a few minutes before he returned.
McWilliams scored seven points in the third before picking up his fourth foul on a charging call with 1:31 left in the period, then fouled out 1:14 into the fourth when he made contact with Cole's Kelby Beckstrom on a made layup.
Holt said that allowing McWilliams to try to play with and through his foul problems was a calculated gamble that the coach believed was worth the risk against a very seasoned Cole squad that pushed its winning streak to 20 games.
“Jaylin's in foul trouble, and we felt that for us to be successful in this game he'd have to be on the floor. So we tried in the first half to do some offense/defense subbing, but there in the fourth quarter, if you get too far down, then it won't do any good when you actually do leave him in there,” Holt said. “So we kept him in, because he's one of our best players. He's a district MVP and he does a lot for us on both ends of the floor, so we felt that we needed him out there."
Academy senior wing Jaylin McWilliams takes a 3-point shot over San Antonio Cole defender Silas Livingston during the Bumblebees' 59-50 loss to the Cougars in a Class 3A state semifinal Tuesday night at Buda Hays. McWilliams, Academy's leading scorer this season and the reigning District 19-3A MVP, was slowed by foul trouble throughout the evening and fouled out with 6:46 remaining in the fourth quarter, scoring nine points in his final game. He shared this season's 19-3A MVP award with junior teammate Darion Franklin. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
In a typical year, the University Interscholastic League conducts all of its state semifinals in San Antonio's Alamodome. However, because of factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UIL required this season's semifinalists to make their own arrangements, keeping the Alamodome off-limits until the state championship games later this week.
With venues willing to host a state semifinal in short supply and restrictions on ticket sales a major sticking point, Academy and Cole scrambled and finally secured Hays on Sunday. Instead of playing in front of a potentially large crowd at the Alamodome, the Bees and the Cougars battled each other in front of a limited crowd of only approximately 225 spectators on each side of Bales Gymnasium, a standard-sized high school gym.
Academy was determined to advance to Friday afternoon's 3A state title game in its first state appearance since it won the 2A state championship in 2002, but Bees senior guard Kollin Mraz said his squad seemed uncharacteristically out of sorts against Cole.
“We were off. We weren't in pace with each other. We were too worried about the next game instead of this one,” said Mraz, who scored six points and aided Academy with numerous hustle plays. “It's nothing we haven't seen before. It was literally just us not thinking (Cole was) going to come out like that.”
Afterward, Holt expressed his disappointment that Academy's players and fans didn't get the experience of playing the state semifinal in the Alamodome, where all of the Bees' supporters likely could have bought tickets instead of having only roughly 225 fans in attendance.
“Obviously, nobody wants to play a state semifinal game at Hays High School in Buda. I mean, I'm glad they hosted us, but these kids deserved to play in front of thousands of people. But with the way that it worked out, that was something out of our control,” Holt said. “I just feel terrible for these kids that they weren't able to showcase their talent and their skill and their love of this game . . . I mean, these guys love to play basketball, and it would have been great for them to play this game – win or lose – at the dome in front of thousands of people. But with this year, that wasn't in the cards, I guess.”
Of course, Holt also was cognizant of the fact that Cole's 2019-20 team won Region IV and its state semifinal over Peaster but then never got to play Dallas Madison in the 3A championship game after the UIL suspended its state tournament following the semifinals because of emerging pandemic concerns and later decided to cancel it altogether.
“Cole knows that same feeling. They won their semifinal game (last season), so they could've been playing for the state championship in front of thousands of people,” Holt said. “It is what it is.”
Back for more this season, the Cougars will get their shot to win the 3A championship in their hometown when they take on No. 10 Tatum (25-3) at 2 p.m. Friday in the Alamodome. Region II champion Tatum beat No. 2 Brock, the Region I champ, 62-45 on Tuesday in Corsicana.
“To get back to the state final, I can't tell you how proud I am of them, because I don't know if a lot of people predicted us to be back here with the players we lost (after last season). They deserve all the credit,” said Cole head coach Noe Cantu, whose Cougars are making their eighth state tournament appearance in program history but seeking only their second championship. Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal powered Cole to a perfect 1989 season for the 3A state crown.
DIFFICULT ASSIGNMENT: Academy senior guard Jerry Cephus (left) defends San Antonio Cole junior guard Trey Blackmore during the first half of the Cougars' 59-50 win over the Bumblebees in Tuesday night's Class 3A state semifinal at Buda Hays. After Blackmore scored 14 points in the first half, first-team all-district selection Cephus helped limit the 6-foot-3 guard to four points in the final two quarters. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Leading the way for these Cougars against Academy were their dynamic junior guards. The explosive, 6-3 Blackmore scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half against Academy, then the 5-10, wispy Livingston took over after halftime by scoring 15 of his game-high 22 points, including six free throws and 10 points in the fourth.
“They're confident players. We told them at the beginning of the year, 'You guys are going to have to be special.' And I remember they looked at me and were like, 'Coach, we could have done this last year,'” Cantu said. “They've had a chip on their shoulder to prove to people how good they really are.”
Said Livingston: “I feel like it's a 1-2 punch. Trey's a great scorer and the best player on our team, and I feel like I do a good job of finding Trey and I know I can score just as much as him. We go back and forth, and we've got great defense.”
After notching six playoff wins for the second straight season, Livingston and Blackmore now have the opportunity to lead Cole to its first state title in 32 years.
“It's really great to be back, but we've got one more game left and this game is already over with,” Livingston said. “Starting (Wednesday), we're back in the gym working hard and getting ready to win the state championship.”
Layups by Adreaell Ray and Blackmore staked Cole to an early 4-0 lead before Rambeau scored inside and Franklin's steal turned into a McWilliams layin for a 4-4 game. Rambeau's three close-range buckets helped Academy trail by only one at 11-10 after the first.
STEPPING UP: Academy junior guard Chris Preddie (23) takes a 3-point shot over outstretched San Antonio Cole defender Adreaell Ray during the No. 16 Bumblebees' 59-50 loss to the No. 5 Cougars in a Class 3A state semifinal Tuesday night in Buda. With senior wing Jaylin McWilliams in foul trouble, Preddie came off the bench and scored seven points to help Region III champion Academy (22-8) remain close with Region IV champ Cole (26-5). (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
After McWilliams absorbed his third foul 1:10 into the second, he took a seat and was replaced by Preddie, an explosive jumper and skilled defender. He made two free throws and a hard-driving layup to cut the Bees' deficit to 21-20 midway through the second before McWilliams came back in.
“Chris Preddie came in and stepped up and made shots and played great defense,” Holt said of Preddie, voted Sixth Man of the Year in 19-3A. “That's a great thing to see, a kid who didn't play a lot last weekend (in the regional tournament) but came in and when the team needed him, he stepped up and made some steals, got some rebounds, got an and-1. That's what good teams have to have – guys step in when something's not going right.”
But Academy couldn't slow down Blackmore during the first half's closing minutes, as he made an on-the-run 8-foot shot, a fast-break layup and then drove along the right baseline before rising and hitting a 12-foot jumper to help Cole seize a 29-21 halftime advantage.
“I think he missed one shot,” Holt said about Blackmore's first-half performance. “He's a stud. He can shoot, he can drive, he has a good mid-range game. It's tough to guard a guy like that. I thought Jerry did a good job, but he was making tough shots. One of our keys was we wanted to force them to take tough shots. They did, and they made them. If they're going to make tough shots it's hard to beat them, because they play really good defense.”
Cole took its biggest lead at 33-23 on Blackmore's fast-break layup 2:25 into the third quarter, but Franklin and McWilliams responded with driving buckets before McWilliams made two free throws and drilled an open 3-pointer fro the left corner to pull Academy within 35-32 with 2:16 left, sending Academy's fans into a frenzy.
Cole then wrapped an Elijah Sexton basket and a Livingston 3-pointer around McWilliams' fourth foul, a charging call on a spin move in the lane, to go up 40-32. Franklin gave the Bees a much-needed jolt when a loose ball squirted to him and he sank a 30-foot 3 at the third-quarter buzzer for a 40-35 game.
Cole came right back to begin the fourth with layups by Livingston and Ray for a nine-point lead, but Rambeau scored inside and Mraz's behind-the-back pass set up Cephus' only basket of the night to make it 44-39, leading to a Cole timeout with 6:53 left as Academy's fans stood and cheered wildly.
However, the Bees' shot to win the game took a big hit only 7 seconds later when Beckstrom streaked in on the left side for a layup while being fouled by McWilliams, who fouled out at the 6:46 mark before Beckstrom completed the three-point play for a 47-39 lead.
“It was a big impact. He's a top dog on our team for sure, so that was a big loss,” Mraz said about Academy having to play without McWilliams for the bulk of the final quarter.
The Bees answered with Mraz's 3-pointer from the left wing before Franklin grabbed a steal, made a spinning shot in the lane while being fouled and finished the three-point play to make it 48-45 with 5:15 remaining, firing up his bench and crowd.
“We're all just some hoopers and do what we've got to do,” Mraz said. “Darion knows his job and that's to score the ball, and he's going to do that. He's just an all-around hooper.”
True to form, Livingston came right back with two free throws and a fast-break layup for a 52-45 Cole lead. Preddie then drilled a 3 from the top left to make it 52-48 with 3:49 left and Franklin stole the ball on the Cougars' next possession, but Academy's offense then went dry from the field and didn't score again until Franklin's inside basket pulled the Bees within 55-50 with 1:33 left.
Needing defensive stops and quick scores, Academy got neither. Cole used a Ray free throw and Livingston's fast-break pass for a Blackmore layup with 28 seconds remaining to seal its hard-earned victory over the Bees, who lost for the first time since Jan. 5 in overtime against 4A regional quarterfinalist Waco La Vega.
Some 15 minutes after the game ended, the teary eyes and red faces of Academy's players told the story after Holt spoke with them and consoled them in an emotional locker room. Following a painful season-ending defeat and the final game for his five seniors, including reserve forward Tyler Lambert, Holt offered a big-picture perspective.
“First off, we didn't talk about the game. That's not important right now. We just loved on the kids. We're here for relationships,” Holt said, adding that he's grateful Academy got to play 29 games (plus one win by forfeit) during this pandemic-affected season. “Obviously we want to win as many games as we can, but we want to build strong kids. We want them to learn the values you can learn in athletics. We want them to know that we love them and that we'll do anything for them to help them be a better person and succeed.
“It's hard to put things in perspective right now because of what they're feeling like, but I think as you get farther away from this moment, I think they're going to appreciate how special this was,” added Holt, whose team was 7-7 in early January before ripping off 15 straight wins. “It's going to be sad the next time we go to practice and those five guys aren't going to be there. We've been through so much together. When I first got here, these seniors were eighth-graders and they had no idea about me and I didn't know anything about them. I'd never been a head coach. We built that trust to where they trusted that I was going to try to do what's best for them, and when they trust you, they'll do anything for you. They'll play as hard as they can.”
HARD DRIVE: Academy senior guard Kollin Mraz (1) drives to the basket against San Antonio Cole senior defender Kelby Beckstrom during the second half of the No. 16 Bumblebees' 59-50 loss to the fifth-ranked Cougars in a Class 3A state semifinal at Buda Hays. Mraz, who helped coach James Holt's Bees go 39-1 in District 19-3A the last three seasons, scored six points in his final career game for Academy (22-8). (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Said Mraz about having played his final game for the Bees after helping them go 39-1 in district play and win nine playoff games during the last three seasons: “It really sucks. I love these coaches and I love these players. There's nowhere I'd rather be than Academy, Texas.”
As for the Bees' only starter who will return next season, Franklin said he'll greatly miss competing with his graduating teammates and already is planning to let Academy's crushing loss to Cole motivate him during the offseason.
“I'm going to have to bust my butt during the summer,” Franklin said. “I've never played without my guys, without those four. So it's hard."
BOYS HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL
CLASS 3A STATE SEMIFINAL
No. 5 San Antonio Cole 59,
No. 16 Academy 50
Cole 11 18 11 19 – 59
Academy 10 11 14 15 – 50
Cole (26-5) – Silas Livingston 22, Trey Blackmore 18, Adreaell Ray 9, Kelby Beckstrom 5, Elijah Sexton 4, Pierre Harris 1.
Academy (22-8) – Darion Franklin 16, Tanner Rambeau 10, Jaylin McWilliams 9, Chris Preddie 7, Kollin Mraz 6, Jerry Cephus 2.
3-point field goals – Cole 4 (Blackmore 2, Livingston 2); Academy 4 (Franklin 1, McWilliams 1, Mraz 1, Preddie 1).
Free throws – Cole 13-18; Academy 6-10.
Notes – Region III champion Academy's winning streak ends at 15 games in the program's first state semifinal game since it won the Class 2A state championship in 2002; Region IV champion Cole extends its winning streak to 20 games and advances to play No. 10-ranked, Region II champion Tatum (25-3) in the 3A state championship game at 2 p.m. Friday at San Antonio's Alamodome.