The boys’ basketball team at Hamilton High School has landed squarely on the positive side of change being a good thing. The Wildcats, who were reclassified this season from Class AAA to Class AA, now are state champs.
Few observers had the Wildcats on their radar as state title contenders at the beginning of the season. Now, after a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback over the Fulton Falcons in a 60-58 victory, Hamilton is flying high with a TSSAA championship.
Head coach William Smith now is in the record books as a former great player who has won a state title. With Fulton putting on a push and opportunity seemingly slipping away for the Wildcats in the final frame, Smith called a timeout.
“We feel like our guys needed to feel like they were wanted and loved. I called the timeout to tell them I love them, and I told them to continue to fight,” Smith said. “At that point in time it is not a play you call, it is about determination and will and that is what we have an abundance of. They showed it today.”
The Class AA championship proved to be the best title game of the day in Murfreesboro. It was, however, the last of the three and seen by the fewest amount of people. The Hamilton faithful filled the section behind their team’s bench and it was a highly vocal group of supporters.
The game was tied 31-31 at the end of third period. Up to that point, neither team had led by more than five points. Attacking the rim, the Falcons from Knoxville surged to a 42-38 lead, with Hamilton’s players and fans questioning some of the referees’ calls.
The Falcons, who have been in the upper echelon of AA teams in recent years, clearly wanted to add another state title. With 3:39 left in the game, it took a basket by Kevon McMahan and his accompanying free throw to get Hamilton back to a five-point deficit. Jordan Johnson hit a three-pointer at the 3:23 mark, making it 52-50. Johnson was fouled with 2:37 to go. He missed the front end of the one and one but Martrell Brooks got the rebound, with his put back knotting the score at 50.
Brooks, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, made another basket at the 2:08 juncture and when he added the free throw Hamilton was up by two, 55-53. Julian Wood’s put-back shot extended the lead to 57-53.
The Falcons (25-9) would not quit. Ron Davis III hit a three-point shot to make it 59-58 with 32 seconds left in the game. The Wildcats had several opportunities to extend the lead, but Hamilton could not put several shots around the rim into the basket. With 30 seconds remaining, Woods made one of two free throws, giving the Wildcats a 60-58 advantage.
As the final seconds ticked down, Fulton’s Josh Berry chose to go for the win rather than getting into two-point range for the tie and probably sending the game into overtime. His three-pointer fell short, not even hitting the rim.
The Wildcats (36-2) were led by Brooks with 21 points and 14 rebounds, James De Jesus with 12 points and Jordan Johnson with 10 points. De Jesus, Johnson and Brooks were named to the all-state team.
“Like coach always say, never give up,” Brooks said. “First half it was going our way, but they came back, and coach called a timeout. He told us to calm down and keep focus. They were trying to speed us up and we had to keep our focus.”
Smith said this season he tended to judge his team by his looking at his Brooks’ demeanor.
“When I can understand his mind, I know my team. I put it out there again, I love my team. I put it out there anywhere. Any basketball team in America, I am including the Dukes and the North Carolina. When you got a player like Martrell Brooks on your team there is nothing you can’t do. You can see it in his stats and through how he plays. I will go to bat with him every day.”
Reflecting on the Wildcats achieving their goal, Smith said, “Everything was not for naught. Anything you put in was well worth it. Every sleepless night was all worth it. You hit the pinnacle and come back with the gold ball.”
Four Memphis teams made the state tournament, with East taking the all-Memphis AAA title with a win over Whitehaven and Douglass finishing as the runner-up in Class A.
“It was definitely extra motivation for us after the Douglass loss,” Smith said. “I accepted the pressure…”
Brooks interjected. “We did not want to go back to Memphis with a silver ball. We were going back with the gold ball.”
Hamilton’s athletic director is Smith’s mother. She gave the team candy bracelets that resembled Hawaiian leis after the game and players wore them into the post-game media conference.
The Wildcats’ Jordan Johnson took note of the small crowd for the last title game of the day.
“We feel we have been underrated all year,” he said “People feel that we don’t play enough good teams, have the talent that East has, not knocking them down. We feel like we can play with any team.”