Jay boys basketball head coach Hank Hullett knew Thursday’s semifinal game was going to be tough.
It was the third meeting between the Royals and rival Central. Jay had already beaten the Jaguars twice before in the regular season, but Hullett knew the Jaguars were “hungry” with some seniors that didn’t want their season to end.
Jay appeared to have the game locked at halftime, up 28-14. But Central wasn’t going away quietly. Eventually, the Jaguars pulled to within two points with under 30 seconds to go. With Jay in the bonus, both Ethan McDonald and Mason Allen sank two free throws to ice the game.
The Royals wound up winning 63-58 to advance to the District 1-1A championship game on Saturday at No. 1 Paxton.
“Growing up, I was not a great free throw shooter. So I don’t know what that’s like. I was the one sitting on the bench when they were shooting free throws at that time,” Hullett said with a laugh. “We’ve got guys that just step up. They knocked down free throws when they needed to. They handled the ball when they needed to. They contested shots when they needed to. Central shot the ball extremely well. I’m just proud of our guys for all their effort.”
The Royals went up early, scoring eight unanswered points – all from Ethan McDonald – before Central finally responded. Jay boasted an 11-5 advantage after the first quarter. While Central started to find some offensive life in the second frame, Jay still had a stronghold on the Jaguars.
In the third stanza, Central went on a few small runs in the middle of the quarter before Jay, once again, went on a streak. This time, they scored six unanswered before Central’s Kaden Ellison hit a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with just 5 seconds left in the frame. The Jaguars trailed, 45-35.
“Every team you coach has their deficiencies. But heart and effort is not one of those deficiencies of this team,” Central head coach Wesley Mathews said. “They have those in spades.”
Jay held onto as much of a 12-point advantage in the early stages of the fourth quarter, but after some missed layups, Central started hitting shots from deep. Ellison and Carson Baxley hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get within four points.
More back and forth play ensued, then Ellison hit yet another shot from deep to get it within a one-possession game. At that point, with under 30 seconds to go, Central was forced to foul early to try to get the ball back. But Jay hit four consecutive free throws to ice the game.
“That’s why you stay in the gym for extra hours,” McDonald said. “All those noises and all those distractions go away when your feet touch the free throw line.”
Central closes out its season with a 13-12 overall record in Mathews’ ninth season at the helm of the Jaguars. They were ranked seventh in Region 1-1A in the latest FHSAA regional rankings, which is too far out for an at-large bid.
“They peaked at the end of the season. That was the best game of the season they’ve played all year. We didn’t win, but it was their best game. … I appreciate their commitment to do the little things that don’t always show up on stat sheets that sometimes lead to victories that you shouldn’t get on paper,” Mathews said. “There’s an old saying, ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants.’ You stand on the shoulders of the guys that came before you. They set the bar high. There are a lot of expectations. This young group is ready to live up to it. I look forward to working with them.”
Saturday will be the third consecutive season that the District 1-1A title matchup is between Jay (15-8) and Paxton. The Royals won last year, while the Bobcats were champions in 2022.
Jay sat fourth in the latest FHSAA regional rankings in Region 1-1A. Paxton was ranked first. A win for the Royals means an automatic bid into the regional tournament next week.
“It’s going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be a great place to play. The biggest thing is making sure we’re consistent with the basketball, making sure we get paint touches before we shoot 3-pointers,” Hullett said. “The biggest thing is the environment. If you’re not mentally tough, it’ll make you crumble.”
“This is a big rivalry. We’re up to the competition. We can’t wait for it,” McDonald said. “We’ve been waiting for this all week – all year, honestly – to play Paxton for a district championship.”
Here are three takeaways from the game.
The Royals’ starting five has a trio of players standing at 6-foot-4, 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8. Those players are Brady Godwin, Mason Allen and Matthew Skipper. Even then, the other two – Ethan McDonald (6-foot-2) and Sammy Melvin (6-foot-1) – aren’t looked down on. Literally.
While that height helped with rebounds throughout Thursday’s game, plus some put-back layups and other in-close opportunities, Hullett said that height is much more than just being a big post player.
“We’ve got some versatile size as well, who can switch and guard some guards on the outside,” Hullett said. “Central shot the ball extremely well, even with a hand in their face. I thought they played well.”
But playing down low and close to the net is something Jay wants to clean up a bit moving into Saturday. Hullet knows that there are less foul calls at this point of the year, leading to more 50/50 balls that are stripped away.
That happened a few times on Thursday with no foul call – warranted or not – and now the focus turns adjusting to the more physical postseason style of play. Especially against a team like Paxton.
“It’s really about how you play and how you handle adversity, getting bumped off your spot. We’ve got to adjust to that a little bit,” Hullett said. “I expect it to be similar Saturday.”
“We need to work on little things going into Saturday,” McDonald said. “It’s going to be a huge game with a big atmosphere. … They’re scrappy as well.”
Winning at the right time
Winning means that the Royals’ season stays alive. That much is obvious. But now, Jay finds itself on an eight-game win streak that spans back to Jan. 19. The success started with a 60-40 win on the road at Holmes County.
Five of those wins came against fellow 1A schools (Holmes County, Central twice and Northview twice). Two of those came against bigger schools in L.E.A.D. Academy (2A) and Pine Forest (5A). The other came against Destin, which is an independent school in the FHSAA for boys basketball.
Hullett said this is traditional for the Royals, especially with a good chunk of basketball players who also play football during the fall.
“But we always divide the season up into three parts. There’s before Christmas, after Christmas and the postseason. We’re 2-0 right now. We’re not looking at anything else,” Hullett said. “Really, we’re 0-0 going into the second part of the postseason. We hope it continues. But we’re looking at one game at a time.”
Before the win streak began, McDonald said there was a conversation among the team that determined what the Royals needed and what roles needed to be filled. At that point, Jay had a 7-8 record. Jay was still second in the district and fourth in the region after the FHSAA rankings on Jan. 16, but the team knew there needed to be a change.
“We came to a conclusion that we needed to get going,” McDonald said. “Playing a tough schedule helped with that.”
Seldom is the win streak mentioned in the locker room.
“We’ve tried to mimic our schedule around playoff-like games, and getting into the playoffs. It comes with a price tag, because it puts pressure on you during the season,” Hullett said. “I don’t think there’s any growth without struggle, so that’s a part of it.”
“We don’t talk about it. We go out, work hard,” McDonald said. “If we continue to work hard, it’ll stay alive.”
‘Scrappy is all you that you’ve got’
Against several opponents this year, Mathews admitted that Central is usually undersized and not as athletic. Thursday was similar going up against Jay.
But that’s just been part of the Jaguars’ identity all year, playing a style of sneaky defense. There weren’t huge blocks that were sent across the court. No flashy steals that led to breakaway layups and slam dunks.
It was little deflections or strips as the Royals ran up the middle of the court that gave Central a fighting chance.
“When you’re undersized and you’re often times not as athletic as the team you’re playing, scrappy is all that you’ve got. They made a career on being scrappy, on hustling and having good effort,” Mathews said. “They take what they can get from the other team. We can’t roll the basketballs out and just be better than people all the time. We have to be a little bit smarter and tougher if we’re going to be successful. This team bought into that, and they did their very best.”
Ben Grieco is a sports reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. He can be reached on X (@BenGriecoSports) and via email at BGrieco@gannett.com.