Devin Gilmore delivers a powerful dunk over a Hartfield defender.
Devin Gilmore delivers a powerful dunk over a Hartfield defender.
 CLINTON – The MAIS staged its Overall championship on Saturday afternoon at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum.

It quickly turned into the Devin Gilmore Show, though.

Gilmore turned in a virtuoso performance in the final game of his illustrious high school career, pouring in 29 points and pulling down 13 rebounds as MRA cruised to a 73-42 victory over upstart Hartfield to capture a second straight Overall title and third in the last four years.

The high-flying 6-foot-6 senior not only recorded a double-double he electrified the large crowd with five rim-rattling dunks, including an ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 worthy one with just under five minutes remaining in which he stole a pass, dribbled the length of the floor, took off on one leg outside the lane and slammed the ball into the goal over a would-be Hawks’ defender with authority.

That game-defining, crowd-pleasing, posterizing dunk – which has since gone viral on social media - served as an emphatic exclamation point behind the easier-than-expected 31-point victory, yet another championship season, and to his four years with the Patriots.

“Take off,” said Gilmore, with a big grin when asked about the dunk afterwards. “That’s all I was thinking. I didn’t think he was going to jump, I really didn’t. When I saw him running at me, I thought he was going to jab at me or stop. But he kept coming. When I saw him come all the way over like he was going to try to block it I said to myself ‘oh no, you’re in trouble.’ It was a shocker. It was a good way for me to go out . . . to play the way I did, to get that dunk near the end, and for us to win Overall. You can’t ask for a much better ending than that.”

MRA, which won the Class AAAA-Division I state title and the Class AAAA state title in successive weeks leading into Overall, has now won 11 Overall championships in school history – all under legendary coach Richard Duease. Nine of those have come in the last 13 years. The Patriots finished 33-9, winning their final 11 games, including nine straight in the postseason. They have lost only one game against MAIS competition over the past two seasons.

“It never gets old,” Duease said. “There were times this year where I didn’t know if this team going to win it, I didn’t know if they were tough enough. There were times when they weren’t focused like they needed to be, and when that happened they came back to the pack. When they were focused, like today, I felt good about our chances. I could tell early on (Saturday) that we were focused and ready to play, especially defensively. When we play like that defensively, and Devin plays like that, we’re hard to beat.”

Hartfield, the Class AAA state champion, found that out the hard way Saturday. The Hawks hung with the Patriots for much of the first half, trailing by just six points at the end of the first quarter and by eight in the waning minutes of the first half. However, Gilmore threw down two dunks in the final two minutes of the second quarter, including one to end the half, to give MRA a 12-point cushion at the break. It was all Patriots in the second half, as a somewhat tight game turned into a convincing blowout, one punctuated by Gilmore’s aerial exploits.

“That last dunk right before halftime gave us a lot of momentum,” MRA junior forward Braxton Eubanks said.

Gilmore, playing in his fourth straight Overall title game, was 13-of-19 from the field, 3-of-4 from the free throw line, and had three assists, three steals and one block to go along with his game-high 29 points and 13 rebounds.

“That’s one of, if not the best game I’ve seen Devin play, and he’s had some good ones,” longtime MRA coach Richard Duease said. “He showed his talent today. I told him before the game that people really don’t realize how good you are. I need you to be a little more selfish today. I need you to take over this game, and that’s what he did.”

Gilmore, as he has all season, got plenty of help from his teammates. Sharpshooter Donavon Lewis added 14 points, including three 3-pointers. Cory Jackson added 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Steady point guard Darrell McClendon contributed seven assists against only one turnover. And Eubanks had eight points, five rebounds, three steals and one block. All five of the MRA starters were named to the All-Tournament team.

It was Eubanks, an often-overlooked junior forward, who drew the assignment of guarding Hartfield’s leading scorer, Dustin Qualls, who he held to only seven points on 3-of-12 shooting. The Hawks shot just 30 percent for the game against the Patriots’ stifling defense. Meanwhile, MRA shot 56.4 percent and held a 40-22 rebounding edge.

“Braxton’s overall game has improved so much,” Duease said. “He’s our defensive stopper, and he did a very good job (Saturday) slowing down their best scorer. That was one of the keys to our victory.”

Duease, who just completed his 35th season at MRA, knows a thing or two about victories. Earlier this season, he won his 1,000th boys game and his 1,600th game overall (boys and girls). He will enter next season only three wins shy of becoming the all-time winningest boys basketball coach in Mississippi history. In addition, Duease is 85 wins away from becoming the winningest basketball coach in Mississippi (boys and girls combined). Period. For the record, he now has 1,021 boys wins and 1,613 combined wins. Furthermore, he has won 27 state championships (22 boys, five girls) to go along with his 13 Overall championships (11 boys, two girls).

MRA has averaged 28 wins per season during his 35-year run.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever played for,” said Gilmore, who repeated as MAIS Player of the Year.

For Duease, it’s not all about the number of championships, or the number of wins. It’s more about relationships, winning souls, and preparing/better equipping his players for the game of life. Gilmore is a perfect example. He grew up in a rough environment, and was just skating through at his former school before arriving at MRA four years ago. Four years later, he’s become a better man, a better basketball player and is on schedule to graduate in a couple of months – thanks in large part to Duease’s influence and the support staff at MRA. In the near future, he will in all likelihood play college basketball on scholarship.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Duease said. “I’m so happy for this group of seniors. That’s what they are going to be remembered by, winning Overall. Every time they come back and visit the school, they will see that picture and that banner on the wall.”

Reality set in for Gilmore during the trophy presentation after the game. It was at that moment he realized he had just played his last game in a MRA uniform. The tears started flowing soon after he shared a long hug with his mother along the baseline.

“It just hit me all at once, I’m done,” Gilmore said, reflecting back. “I realized this was the last time playing with my teammates. We all wanted this game really bad, especially the seniors. I guess you can say I saved my best for last. That’s the way to go out, on top.”