D.J. Montgomery is surrounded by Gulfport defenders as he make a move in the lane.
D.J. Montgomery is surrounded by Gulfport defenders as he make a move in the lane.
JACKSON-For a basketball team that did the little things - boxing out under the basket, taking care of the basketball and getting the upper-hand on hustle plays - for so long, Wednesday's semifinal-round loss was a heartbreaker for Madison Central.

The Jaguars (28-3) made just 1-of-8 shots from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and fell to Gulfport 44-40. The Admirals (32-3) went on to defeat Grenada in the final to claim its first title in 12 years. It marked the second year in a row that coach Rahim Lockhart's squad has been eliminated from the tournament by the eventual champion.

"We had a really good season," Lockhart said. "We accomplished every goal except for our last one. We won our Madison Tournament, we won the Gulfport Tournament, we won district for the first time and we are 6A North champs. We just couldn't get the big prize."

For a while Wednesday, it looked like the Jaguars weren't going to stand up a date with that elusive state title over the weekend.

The Jags jumped ahead in the opening minutes, and were wearing Gulfport out with a fast-break transition offense. Junior guard Leroy Buchanan had a steal and went coast-to-coast for an easy layup. Moments later, it was his younger brother Marquiez Buchanan lobbing an assist to Xavian Stapleton on a sweet alley-oop slam.

When the dust settled, the Jags held a 17-4 lead, and it looked to all the world like they were ready to run away with it.

But Gulfport scored the last four points of the first quarter, and after allowing Madison Central 17 points in the first quarter, they held the Jaguars to just four points in the second. The Admirals erased a 21-16 Madison Central halftime lead and pulled within two points (30-28) by the end of the third quarter. They finished off the comeback by sinking enough free throws in the fourth quarter to overcome a very poor performance by the Jags at the charity stripe.

"It's hard," Lockhart said. "I'm not sure it's something you ever get over. I think we did a great job of preparing ourselves physically all year, but at some point you have to get to the point where you are preparing yourself mentally for those kinds of situations."

Stapleton finished the game with 16 points and 6 rebounds and Leroy Buchanan, Marquiez Buchanan and Chase Carroll all finished with eight points. That wasn't enough to overcome a 50 percent (9-of-18) mark from the free throw line.

Junior Jahshire Hardnett was the star for Gulfport. The 5-foot-11 combo guard scored 16 points, including two on a jumper in the fourth quarter that gave the Admirals their first since the opening minute.

"The bigger the game, the better he is," Gulfport coach Owen Miller told reporters after the game. "He's been that way (since his freshman year). The higher the stakes, the better he plays. I'm just glad he's wearing Orange and Blue."

The Admirals' other Dandy Dozen guard Dimitri Cook added 12 points. Gulfport went on to defeat Grenada 64-59 in the championship game Saturday night.

For Madison Central, the disappointment couldn't be understated. This was a team that had lost just three games all season, and earlier this year had beaten this same Gulfport team 54-50 on their home floor on the coast in the Admiral Classic. It had defeated eventual runner-up Grenada to earn the 6A North State title.

The roster featured three players that averaged double-figures in scoring, including two seniors who are headed to the next level. Stapleton, a 6-foot-5 forward rated as a three-star (out of five) player by recruiting service Rivals.com, is verbally committed to Louisiana Tech.

Carroll, a 6-foot-1 guard who can stroke it from the 3-point arc, has several Division II offers and has gotten late interest from Central Arkansas. Either way, he'll also get the opportunity to extend his career beyond high school.

Replacing guys like that is nearly impossible, but it's a task Lockhart said he's ready to tackle.

"I look at it this way: this season was special because we basically had to replace five starters from last season," he said. "...We lost a bunch of guys, but we took what we had coming back and we molded ourselves around the things we did well. We'll have to do the same next year."