Tradition-rich MRA eyes repeat in basketball
Wednesday, November 30, 2016 6:00 PM
MADISON – The first thing one notices upon entering the lobby of MRA’s gymnasium is the trophy case filled with gold balls. Enter into the gym itself, and there’s championship banners galore. Step inside longtime coach Richard Duease’s office and there’s even more title paraphernalia and countless Coach of the Year plaques from year’s past.
Yes, MRA’s dominance in boy’s basketball is real. All the trophies, banners and plaques are just further proof of that.
How real? Try the fact that the Patriots have won the MAIS Overall Championship two of the past three years, and eight of the last 12. They have won 10 Overall titles - including five straight from 2007-’11 - giving the mega-successful Duease a championship ring for all 10 fingers. The latest came this past season as Du’s Crew claimed the Academy version of the basketball Triple Crown, winning the Division I-AAAA, State AAAA and Overall titles.
MRA finished 32-3, including a perfect 8-0 run in the postseason. The Patriots did not lose to an MAIS opponent all season. All three of their losses were to out-of-state competition - by a combined score of just eight points. Their average margin of victory during the regular season was a whopping 28 points.
Furthermore, MRA spent the entire season ranked No. 1 in The Clarion-Ledger Academy AAAA poll and inhabited the Super 10 poll for a majority of the season, finishing 6th following a 57-44 victory over Simpson Academy in the Overall championship game at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum.
Making all that even more impressive is the fact that MRA accomplished it without arguably its best player, Clint Moses, who was sidelined the entire season with a torn ACL.
One year later, MRA once again enters a season with one of its best players unable to play because of an ACL injury. LiLewis Davis, a powerful 6-4 forward, who came off the bench a year ago to terrorize opponents, sustained his injury this summer. He is hoping to return later this season, although only time will tell.
Whereas a year ago, MRA had the depth to overcome such an injury to one of its star players, it remains to be seen if that will be the case this season – barring Davis’ return. Duease doesn’t have the same luxury he had a year ago when he was so deep many suggested his second team would have also finished among the top five in the Academy ranks. Seven seniors were lost to graduation, including All-Stars Harper Hudnall and Griffin Agent. Hudnall also made the All-MAIS team along with Austin Waldrop, who scored a team-high 15 points in the victory over Simpson in the Overall title game and 18 in the Patriots’ 74-44 semifinal win over Jackson Prep.
“We lost some really good seniors, and now we’re looking at not having Lou (Davis) with us for a while, too,” Duease said. “I thought coming out of the summer Lou was probably our second or third best player. Obviously, we wish he was out there with us. Hopefully, with some hard work and by God’s grace, he’ll be back in January at some point to be able to contribute this year. It’s hard to replace seniors with sophomores. We have some nice sophomores coming up. . . we’ve got seven, eight or nine guys that we are counting on to play for us in big games. Hopefully, they will all improve to the point where than can contribute to the team.”
Duease is entering his 35th season coaching the MRA boys. The Patriots have averaged 28 wins per season during his tenure, and have made 31 Overall appearances. He has won 940 boy’s games at MRA, and 988 boys games overall. He is just 36 wins away from becoming the all-time winningest boys’ basketball coach in Mississippi history.
Duease will be hard-pressed to reach that milestone this year, but he should move significantly closer toward the record by season’s end. While he may not have the same type of depth at his disposal as he did a year ago, his starting five should be as good as anybody’s in the league – making the Patriots a serious threat to win it all again this year.
“I think so,” Duease said. “There will probably be three, four or five teams that are going to be very competitive and make a run for it. There’s a lot of timing to it. You need to be able to improve and hit your peak at the right time. Hopefully, this team will be able to do that. Again, it goes back to senior leadership. We can only go as far as the seniors lead us.”
Duease is expected to go with as many as four seniors in the starting lineup once football season ends. That quartet will be led by Devin Gilmore, last year’s MAIS Class AAAA-Division I Player of the Year. The high-flying 6-6 swingman averaged 14.8 points and 8 rebounds per game a year ago. He scored in double figures 27 times, including a season-high 29 points in a win over Pillow. He was named a third-team All-State selection by The Clarion-Ledger a year ago, and just missed making this year’s preseason Dandy Dozen.
Gilmore, who has drawn interest from a handful of Division I schools, shot 57 percent from the field and 71 percent from the free throw line. He stepped up his game in the postseason, averaging nearly 20 points in three games at Overall, including a 14-point, 10-rebound performance in MRA’s 13-point win over Simpson in the title game.
Gilmore averaged 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore, scoring in double figures 32 times.
“He is the best player in the state in the private school league,” Duease said. “I think he’s one of the top four or five players in the state period. His jump shot is getting better, and his work ethic is getting better. So, we’re expecting a lot from him.”
Joining Gilmore in the starting lineup will be shooting guard Donavon Lewis, point guard Darrell McClendon, power forward Cory Jackson and small forward Braxton Eubanks.
Lewis, the Patriots’ best perimeter shooter, averaged 9 points per game a year ago in his first season at MRA. He scored a season-high of 21 points at Jackson Academy. The 6-foot-4 Lewis connected on 44 3-pointers while shooting 38 percent from behind the arc.
“Don had a great summer,” Duease said. “He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger. He’s shooting the ball really well. I’m expecting a lot of big things from him this season. We’ll need him to step into a leadership role for us as a senior if we’re going to be where we expect to be at the end.”
McClendon came off the bench a year ago, providing solid minutes while spelling Hudnall. He assumes a much larger role this year in what is his second year at MRA. At 5-foot-7, he’s low to the ground and handles the ball extremely well. He’s a good floor general, and also is a good on-the-ball defender.
“He’s playing a little tougher for us,” Duease said. “He’s a solid player, and a solid point guard. I would like for him to become more vocal in his role as the point guard, and hopefully he can do that. He’s going to be a significant part of our team.”
Jackson, who will join the team once football season is over, was expected to play a bigger role this season. That’s especially true now in lieu of Davis’ injury. At 6-foot-3, Jackson is going to be called on to be a force inside on both ends of the floor. He shot 62 percent from the floor a year ago in a reserve role in his first year at MRA.
“We are counting on him to be a solid defender in the post, and to be able to score inside and control the boards,” Duease said.
Eubanks, a versatile 6-4 guard/forward, rounds out the starting five. He can score inside and out, making him a tough matchup for opposing teams. The junior has been slowed by an ankle injury during the preseason, but recently returned and should be ready for Saturday’s season-opener at Bowling Green.
“He’s one of the most improved players we have on our team,” Duease said. “He’s getting taller. . . I hope he doesn’t stop growing. He’s about 6-4 now. For us to be successful, he’s got to have a really good year.”
Senior post player Cooper Ruwe and junior guard Spencer Wright are also expected to see considerable playing time. Both are slated to start against Bowling Green. Henri Borne, a guard/forward, is another player who should log significant minutes once he joins the team at the conclusion of the football season. Guard Owen Barry is the team’s other senior.
Nathan Hill, a spot up shooter, rounds out the junior class. The sophomore class is comprised of guards Justin Jackson, Hamp Hudnall, William Milam, and Cole Ruwe along with forwards Walker Manning and Samuel Shufelt.
“That’s a good collection of players,” Duease said. “All of those guys will help us at some point throughout the season.”
The schedule is once again loaded with games against public school competition, to go along with the MAIS slate of games.
“The schedule is very competitive as it usually is,” Duease said. “We’ve always played good teams, and this year is no exception. We’re playing the teams we normally play within our league who are very good year in and year out. Then you throw a St. Thomas Moore out of Baton Rouge, Olive Branch, Oxford, Gulfport, and Starkville among others in there, and you’re talking about a very tough schedule. But it should make us better by the end of the year. That’s the only way you improve, is to play good competition.”