SURVIVAL: Mraz-to-McWilliams helps Academy oust New Waverly in 2OT; Bees play East Chambers in final
SENIOR MOMENT: With 16th-ranked Academy trailing No. 7 New Waverly 60-58 with 3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter Friday night, senior guard Kollin Mraz threw a 75-foot inbound pass that senior wing Jaylin McWilliams caught before making a buzzer-beating layup that sent the Class 3A Region III semifinal into overtime at Madisonville High School. The Bumblebees (21-7) went on to earn a 70-69, double-overtime victory, advancing them into the regional championship game vs. No. 11 Winnie East Chambers (27-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Madisonville. The Buccaneers beat No. 14 Lorena 53-35. Academy is seeking its first state semifinal berth since the Bees won the 2A state title in 2002. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
MADISONVILLE – In Academy's home football game against Lago Vista last September, Kollin Mraz threw a deep pass to fellow senior wide receiver Jaylin McWilliams for a 67-yard touchdown that helped the Bumblebees win 13-0.
However, that was merely a non-district game. That stakes were significantly higher for Mraz's latest long pass to McWilliams on Friday night: Academy survival in the Class 3A boys basketball playoffs.
With the 16th-ranked Bees trailing No. 7 New Waverly 60-58 with 3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Mraz fired a 75-foot pass to the in-motion McWilliams, whose left-handed layup off the glass beat the buzzer and sent the high-intensity Region III semifinal battle into overtime as Academy's players and fans erupted in celebration.
A second overtime period became necessary after Darion Franklin brought the Bees back from a five-point deficit, then Tanner Rambeau's three-point play pushed the Bees ahead to stay and the Bulldogs got within one point in the closing seconds but ran out of time as Academy grabbed a dramatic 70-69, double-OT victory at Madisonville High School.
“I could go to sleep right now,” said an exhausted but smiling Mraz, confirming that he had no energy left following the 40-minute, back-and-forth classic in which Academy rallied from a 12-point deficit midway through the third quarter. “That's the daddy of them all. We've never played like that – double overtime, hustling the whole game. I mean, it was a fun atmosphere. We just had fun.”
Said Bees fifth-year head coach James Holt, whose team survived 19 turnovers in regulation and 24 overall: “I told the kids, 'I know y'all are having fun, but you're giving me a heart attack.'”
When was the last time Academy (21-7) – which won its 14th consecutive game by snapping the 26-game winning streak of New Waverly (26-2), Region III's highest-ranked team – had to fight that long and hard to come out on top?
“Never. Never. That game was like a dang track meet,” junior point guard Franklin said after navigating foul trouble to score a game-high 24 points. “I'm gassed. I'm ready to call it a night.”
Said Holt: “Playing double overtime, you've got to be in shape. The guys who were out there on the floor at the end played a ton of minutes.”
The Bees' reward for escaping the Bulldogs is a quick-turnaround showdown for the Region III championship and a state semifinal berth against 11th-ranked, undefeated Winnie East Chambers (27-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Madisonville High School. East Chambers pulled away from No. 14 Lorena to win 53-35 in the regional tournament's second semifinal.
“I think the first thing we're going to do is celebrate a little bit,” said Holt, whose squad hadn't played since last Saturday, when it controlled No. 17 Franklin 69-47 to get past the Region III quarterfinals after having been eliminated in that round by Crockett in 2019 and 2020. “But then we do have a quick turnaround, and so we'll talk about, 'Hey, we've got to take care of our bodies, we've got to get fluids, we've got to get rest.' Rest is going to be a big thing.
“We can't be staying up late. We've got an early walkthrough and a 1 o'clock game. You've got to be physically ready for that game, and that starts right now tonight in order to get there. I think they're so locked in right now that they're going to do whatever they need to do for us to be as good as we can be tomorrow.”
Added Mraz: "We've got to eat good tonight and get a bunch of calories in us to refuel our bodies and stay off our feet. But we've been playing tournament ball since we were 10 years old, 12 years old, so it's nothing new. We've just got to come out and perform tomorrow."
Franklin said he thought it was going to be challenging for the Bees – making their longest playoff run since Academy captured the 2A state championship in 2002 – to calm down after such a thrilling victory.
“We're going to be ourselves,” Franklin said. “We got over our Round 3 slump and just won Round 4. I'm not going to lie, we're excited. Coach said, 'Lights out at 11.' There's no telling what time we'll go to sleep.”
BIG-GAME PERFORMANCE: Academy junior point guard Darion Franklin takes a contested 3-point shot during the first half of the No. 16-ranked Bumblebees' 70-69, double-overtime win against No. 7 New Waverly in a Class 3A Region III semifinal Friday night at Madisonville High School. Franklin scored 17 of his game-high 24 points after halftime for Academy (21-7), which got 17 points from senior Jerry Cephus, 16 from senior Jaylin McWilliams and 11 from senior Tanner Rambeau. Coach James Holt's Bees rallied from a 12-point deficit midway through the third quarter to snap the Bulldogs' win streak at 26. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Senior shooting guard Jerry Cephus scored 12 of his 17 points during Academy's 25-point fourth quarter, and his stellar defense limited New Waverly junior guard Sebastine Amaro to zero points in the first three quarters and 10 overall – 11 points below his season average. Senior wing McWilliams scored 11 of his 16 points after halftime, and senior power forward Rambeau produced seven of his 11 points after halftime.
Cephus, Franklin and Mraz had four personal fouls apiece late in regulation time, but all of them made it through the two overtime periods without fouling out.
“It was very hard, because we want the ball at all costs,” Franklin said of Academy's persistent foul trouble, which helped New Waverly shoot 29 free throws and make 22. “Not being able to reach for the ball and steal the ball and rip the ball, it's difficult. But you've got to play disciplined sometimes.”
“I think the adrenaline kicked in. When it's that type of game, you're going to give whatever you have," Holt said. "They might have been tired, but we felt that was the best lineup we could have. Jerry, Darion and Kollin played both overtimes with four fouls, and luckily they played smart in overtime and we didn't foul anybody out.
“I'm sure they were tired, but so was the other team. The other team played their guys the whole time, too. When both teams are tired, it comes down to execution in late-game situations.”
Senior forward Gavin Chamberlain scored 19 points and was a rebounding force for the District 23-3A champion Bulldogs, who had ripped off 26 straight wins since a season-opening loss. Cameron Austin had 17 points for New Waverly and fellow senior guard Cameron Bell matched Amaro's 10.
Academy wouldn't have another game to get ready for if Mraz and reigning 19-3A Most Valuable Player McWilliams hadn't made their must-have connection in the final 3 seconds of regulation. That came after Bell's on-the-run bank shot gave New Waverly a 60-58 advantage with exactly 3 seconds remaining.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Academy senior guard Kollin Mraz throws a 75-foot pass over New Waverly's defense to senior wing Jaylin McWilliams, whose buzzer-beating layup sent the Class 3A Region III semifinal into overtime Friday night in Madisonville. McWilliams nearly scored the winning basket in the first overtime period, but the officials ruled that the ball still was in his hands as the buzzer sounded. McWilliams scored 16 points as the 16th-ranked Bumblebees (21-7) clipped the No. 7 Bulldogs 70-69 in double overtime, sending Academy into the Region III championship game against the No. 11 Winnie East Chambers Buccaneers (27-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Madisonville. (Video by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
After a Bees timeout, Mraz stood on his own baseline – unguarded – and looked to pass the ball down the court, but the Bulldogs defense of head coach Melvin Williams didn't allow Academy to run the exact play Holt had designed in the huddle. Mraz initially held the ball only in his right hand but then had to secure it with both hands as he began to lean forward. He used up 4 of the allotted 5 seconds before he finally released his long-range heave.
“We had Tanner Rambeau split down the middle and were supposed to toss it to him, and he passes it to either Jerry or Darion and they do whatever they want with it,” explained Mraz, who has the strong right arm of a quarterback (he threw four touchdown passes against McGregor last October while filling in for injured QB Cephus) and a baseball shortstop. “It didn't work out, but we were talking not too long ago about some football connections. I saw Jaylin and the kid he had on him, and I just chunked it.”
The athletic, 6-foot-3 McWilliams got behind New Waverly's defense, caught Mraz's pass in stride just inside the 3-point line on the left side, dribbled once and glided in to make a left-handed layup, which dropped through the net with 1.5 seconds left before the clock expired to force overtime and ignite a wild celebration on Academy's side.
“You've got to be in shape, but you've also got to be prepared. That play at the end of regulation, we didn't get what we normally look for, but it's a play that we work on,” Holt said. “(New Waverly) had a counter for it, and luckily we have a kid with a great arm throwing the ball in and Jaylin broke and finished the layup. That was a special play. It ended up being a playground play, but we'll take it.”
New Waverly entered the semifinal having outscored its opponents by an average of 73-43 this season, and the Bulldogs had won their three playoff games by an average of 26.3 points.
They certainly made life difficult for Academy during the first quarter, taking leads of 6-0, 8-2 and 12-6 as the Bees struggled to avoid turnovers and take good-quality shots against a feisty New Waverly half-court defense that didn't permit a 3-point basket in the opening period. Mraz and Rambeau made two free throws each before Ashton McBride's 3-pointer gave the Bulldogs a 17-12 lead after one quarter.
Down 20-12 early in the second, Academy made its move. Franklin's steal led to a McWilliams layup, Franklin made a 3-pointer from the top left and Franklin hit two free throws before a Cephus 3 from the left wing capped a 10-0 run that gave the Bees their first lead at 22-20 3:42 before halftime. However, Austin responded with a left-handed runner in the lane and then a fast-break layup that turned into a three-point play, sparking New Waverly to a 26-23 halftime advantage.
The 6-5 Chamberlain took over in the third quarter, making an open 3 from up top and fighting for a tough basket inside before Bell hit an elbow jumper to help push the Bulldogs' lead to 12 at 37-25 midway through the third.
Mraz, who had his typical active game in the rebounding and loose-ball departments, said it was vital for Academy's players to keep each other motivated during uneasy moments.
“'Stay in it' is the big one, and 'keep your head in it' and 'stop talking to people,'” Mraz said about what the Bees told one another. “(It was) 'play our game and don't worry about them.'”
Holt said his squad's communication was a key factor.
“I think the most important thing is that when they're coming off the court for a timeout, even if we're not playing well, they still believe in themselves. They're trying to pick each other up. 'Hey, this isn't over. We can still come back,'” Holt said. “They have a lot of confidence in themselves and they have a lot of confidence in their teammates.
"I don't think you can come back from a 12-point game in the third quarter if you don't believe that you can come back. These guys believe in themselves, and they're going to do whatever it takes for us to keep playing.”
With New Waverly on the verge of running away, Academy suddenly cranked up its intensity and flipped the script. Mraz's long pass led to a Franklin layin, McWilliams buried a left-corner 3 after Mraz saved the ball, McWilliams scored easily off a Bulldogs giveaway and Rambeau bulled his way to a close-range bucket for a 10-0 run before Joe Bryant's two free throws put the New Waverly lead at 39-35 through three quarters.
A streaky scorer, Cephus began his 12-point fourth with a lefty layup and a right-corner 3 to give the Bees a 40-39 advantage. The senior also played tight defense on Amaro, who came in with 83 3-pointers this season and averaging 27.3 points during the playoffs but didn't score against Academy until his 3 with 5:16 left in the fourth, followed by Amaro's two free throws for a 46-40 Bulldogs lead with 4:54 remaining.
“Jerry's a gnat. He's annoying,” Franklin said. “He's probably our best defender.”
Academy used the steady scoring of Cephus, Franklin and McWilliams – who combined for 23 points in the fourth – to chip away at New Waverly's lead, making it 50-49 on a McWilliams driving basket, 52-51 on Cephus' scoop shot and 56-54 when Franklin made all three free throws after getting fouled with 55.9 seconds remaining.
Franklin followed Amaro's two free throws with a hard-driving hoop to make it 58-56 with 39.7 seconds left, then Amaro missed two foul shots and Academy made New Waverly pay when Rambeau sank two free throws for a 58-58 deadlock at 20.5.
Bell then answered the bell for the Bulldogs, penetrating the right wing and skillfully banking in a running 5-footer to give them a two-point edge with 3.0 seconds remaining.
After New Waverly disrupted the play Academy drew up in its subsequent timeout, an unfazed Mraz couldn't throw his inbound pass right away but called a necessary audible and his long pass expertly connected with McWilliams for the game's defining play, the buzzer-beating layup that tied the battle at 60-60 and extended it into overtime.
“We never gave up. We've got the chemistry that nobody else has,” Franklin said.
New Waverly started the first 4-minute overtime session with an Austin 3-pointer and went up 65-60 on Chamberlain's layup off a steal. Franklin revived Academy with a right-wing 3, then Rambeau stole the ball from Chamberlain and Franklin's ensuing layup created a 65-65 deadlock with 51.5 seconds left.
The Bees had the final possession and almost won the game on another buzzer-beating basket by McWilliams. When Cephus' rushed 3-point shot fell short, the unaccounted-for McWilliams caught the ball underneath the hoop and quickly made a putback shot off the backboard as Academy players and coaches jumped up and down. It wasn't quick enough, though, as the officials accurately ruled that the ball still was in McWilliams' hands as the buzzer sounded.
Whereas the Bees never led in the first overtime period, they never trailed in the second extra session. Nobody scored until Cephus dumped a pass inside to the 6-4, 230-pound Rambeau, who scored while being fouled and completed the three-point play for a 68-65 lead with 2:09 remaining. McWilliams and Franklin each went 1-for-2 on free throws to make it 70-65 with 57 seconds left.
Both Cephus and McWilliams then went 0-for-2 from the foul line, and in between Austin made two free throws to trim the Bulldogs' deficit to 70-67 with 20 seconds remaining.
New Waverly began its final possession with 15.5 seconds left, and Austin got a good look at a step-back, potentially game-tying 3-pointer from the right wing. When his shot fell short, Kyle Merchant caught it out of midair and made an acrobatic putback off the glass with 2 seconds remaining to cut Academy's lead to 70-69.
However, the Bulldogs couldn't stop the clock and it expired as the Bees passed the ball in, prompting a hearty celebration by Academy's players as those from New Waverly dejectedly walked off the court.
“I think it's a competitive group. They're competitive in practices, they're competitive during games and they're competitive in other sports,” Holt said. “This football season was a great stepping-stone into basketball. They came in with a good mood and with a winning attitude, and I think that carries over from sport to sport. Hopefully us having success last year in basketball (30-7) carried over to football. They're just competitive kids. They want to win in any competition, any sport, whatever. I'm sure if we played Jenga, they'd be fighting over it.”
Although the 3A state championship game is set for 2 p.m. next Friday at San Antonio's Alamodome, factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic require that this season's state semifinalists will be responsible for making their own time-and-location arrangements instead of competing in a traditional state tournament with four teams in each classification.
Standing in the way of Academy advancing to a state semifinal early next week against the Region IV champion is unbeaten East Chambers from Southeast Texas. The speedy Buccaneers – who've outscored opponents by an average of 74.3 to 48.6 – used relentless full-court pressure on defense and efficient offense to break open a close regional semifinal against Lorena in the final quarter.
“They look really good,” Holt said after scouting East Chambers in its 18-point win. “Their defense wants to turn you over and wear you down. We've got to take care of the ball. They're really patient on offense and they work for a good shot. Our defense has got to be really good.”
BOYS HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS
CLASS 3A REGION III SEMIFINAL
No. 16 Academy 70,
No. 7 New Waverly 69 (2OT)
Academy 12 11 12 25 5 5 – 70
N. Waverly 17 9 13 21 5 4 – 69
Academy (21-7) – Darion Franklin 24, Jerry Cephus 17, Jaylin McWilliams 16, Tanner Rambeau 11, Kollin Mraz 2.
New Waverly (26-2) – Gavin Chamberlain 19, Cameron Austin 17, Sebastine Amaro 10, Cameron Bell 10, Joe Bryant 8, Ashton McBride 3, Kyle Merchant 2.
3-point field goals – Academy 6 (Cephus 3, Franklin 2, McWilliams 1); New Waverly 5 (Austin 2, Amaro 1, Chamberlain 1, McBride 1).
Free throws – Academy 16-25; New Waverly 22-29.
Notes – Academy extends its winning streak to 14 games and advances to the Class 3A Region III championship game vs. No. 11 Winnie East Chambers (27-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Madisonville High School. East Chambers beat No. 14 Lorena 53-35.