If teams want to double team Madison Central forward Xavian Stapleton, right, that’s just fine by the Jaguars.
If teams want to double team Madison Central forward Xavian Stapleton, right, that’s just fine by the Jaguars.
Madison Central basketball coach Rahim Lockhart can see how his team is favored to beat Gulfport in the MHSAA 6A State Championship semifinal Wednesday, but don't expect him to read into that notion at all.

If anything, he expects his Jaguars (28-3) to get the Admirals' best shot.

"We know they want to beat us," Lockhart said Tuesday. "We put them out of the tournament last year, and we beat them at their own tournament earlier this year. They are going to come ready to play, and we will have to do the same thing."

Lockhart's Jaguars (28-3) edged Gulfport 54-50 on Dec. 28, handing the Admirals their first loss of the season. Since then, Gulfport has won 16 games and lost just two - to Provine, another semifinal team, and to Warren Central.

If Madison Central puts on a repeat performance Wednesday at the "Big House," it will earn a berth in the state title game against the Provine-Grenada winner, another Wednesday game.

But that is much easier said than done. Gulfport may not be a big team, but it's roster features arguably the most talented guards in the state. As any coach will tell you, good guard play goes a long way in any tournament.

The two Admiral captains, Dimitri Cook and Jahshire Hardnett, average 16 and 22.1 points per game. They defeated Meridian and Biloxi to reach the South 6A Finals, where they lost to Provine.

"We played well against Meridian (in the semifinals) but not as good against Provine," Gulfport coach Owen Miller told Biloxi's Sun Herald. "We were up nine at half and 13 to 14 in the third quarter, but we got impatient on offense. We'll go back to working on fundamentals this week and put in the game plan on Friday."

Those fundamentals - cleaning up defensive rebounds, blocking out, avoiding unforced errors, and creating turnovers - will be crucial for the Admirals, because Lockhart has his guys believing they will be the difference.

"When it comes to the big games, the little things are the difference-makers," Madison Central forward Xavian Stapleton said. "I think we've figured that out this year. When it comes to crunch time, if you've been doing the little things right, you're going to have a chance."

The little things aren't the only aspect of the game Madison Central does well, though.

Stapleton, the Louisiana Tech-committed senior who mans the inside, is averaging 20.9 points a game and 8.8 rebounds. Guards Leroy Buchanan (Shaq, to his teammates and friends), and Chase Carroll average 14.3 and 12.3 points a game, respectively. They average more when opposing teams decide to double-team Stapleton, as Murrah did in the first round of the 6A North Playoffs on Feb. 25.

The Mustangs crowded the box and limited the big man to two points, but the guards flourished with an extra man Buchanan went for 23 points, Caroll scored 13 and sophomore guard D.J. Montgomery added 13 points.

"I guess they don't think we can score," Carroll said. "I understand teams want to take (Xavian) away, but I think we've proved we are more than capable of picking up the slack if they want to make us beat them."

Buchanan said he's fine with teams thinking they can take Stapleton out of the picture and beat the Jaguars.

"We'll just go on letting them think that," he said, smiling. "Chase and I are making shots, and when they double-team our bigs that opens the door for us to do that."

As for Stapleton, he said he doesn't mind staying out of the way, working the boards and passing it off to his teammates.

"We've grown a lot," he said. "We were already close as a team, and we've become even closer now. We've been working on defense and being the better team in the fourth quarter."

The Jags will face Gulfport at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Mississippi Coliseum.