Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Austin High’s George Williams, center, rips a rebound from Thompson’s Jaquezz Brown during the Black Bears’ triple overtime win on Saturday.
Back with a vengeance
Austin says it has a score to settle with Jeff Davis
By Brooke Milam
Austin High hasn’t forgotten the thrill of going to the Class 6A Final Four last season.
The effects of last year’s trip to Birmingham created a buzz around the boys basketball program that has helped fill the stands at Black Bears games all year. But Austin also hasn’t forgotten the 65-40 loss to eventual state champion Jeff Davis of Montgomery in the semifinals.
“It’s motivation, definitely motivation,” Austin senior Travis Cohn said. “To lose that game in front of a big crowd like that. ... We’re going back this year with a vengeance.”
Austin (19-13) will face Jeff Davis (26-5) again in the 6A state semifinals Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, trying to reverse on last year’s season-ending loss.
Spain Park (28-7) will play LeFlore (29-3) in the other semifinal, and the two winners will meet Saturday at 3 p.m. in the 6A championship game.
Austin graduates Deon Bass and Garry Davis haven’t forgotten Jeff Davis, either.
They were seniors on last year’s squad, which saw its dream postseason come to a halt in Birmingham. And they were in the locker room after Austin’s 82-79 triple overtime win over Thompson on Saturday in the Northwest Regional finals, when the Black Bears found out they’d again face Jeff Davis in the state semifinals.
“They were saying ‘Win it for us,’ ” Austin coach Demond Garth said.
Bass and Davis challenged the Black Bears for better results this year, and Garth said he’s looking for a better game this year, too.
“It better be,” Garth said. “I’m not a person who ever makes excuses. Jeff Davis whooped our tail last year. ... That really left a sour taste in our mouth.”
Jeff Davis finished the regular season ranked sixth in the state poll. Jeff Davis advanced to the Final Four by beating Carver-Montgomery 65-63 in the Central Regional championship game.
The Black Bears began the season unranked and never crept into the polls.
It’s the same opponent for Austin, and the names are the same as well — 6-foot-0 guard Courtney Fortson and 6-1 guard Varez Ward are back from last season. They combined for 40 of Jeff Davis’ 65 points in last year’s semifinal win against Austin.
Jeff Davis went on to beat Huffman 49-43 in the 6A championship game.
But Jeff Davis can’t use its scouting report from last season. Austin has revamped this year, after only senior Jay Sears, The Daily’s Class 4A-6A player of the year last season, returned with starting experience. The other four starters graduated.
Cohn is back after playing significant minutes last season, but even so, the Black Bears weren’t a team expected to return to the Final Four this year.
“We started small,” Garth said. “Going in we had a lot of work to do.”
Even at midseason, the Black Bears had their doubts about their team’s potential.
“During the Spain Park tournament when Spain Park beat us — if you’d asked me if we’d go back to the Final Four I’d say, ‘No,’ ” Cohn said.
Austin fell to Spain Park 71-55 in holiday tournament play Dec. 22 — a tournament that included three of the four 6A teams who have advanced to Birmingham (Austin, Spain Park and Jeff Davis).
At the time, Sears was not at full speed, battling ankle injury, and Austin was still searching for the pieces to complete the team’s puzzle at that point in the season.
But the Black Bears are on a roll now.
Sophomore Verkeneo Mann, selected the Northwest Regional tournament’s most valuable player, has become an important ingredient in Austin’s success, as has freshman Jay Watkins, who joined the varsity squad in mid-January.
“They’ve done a whole lot,” Garth said. “Going into the season, you never think a freshman and sophomore are going to step up.”
Mann and Watkins were Austin’s leading scorers in the regional championship game with 23 and 19 points respectively, while Sears and Cohn hit big shots at clutch times.
Piecing together senior experience and young talent, Austin has learned to win this year as a team, Cohn said.
And with last year’s debts to repay, the Black Bears are not trying to win this one for themselves.
“We’re one team,” Cohn said. “It may be one person stepping up in any different game, but it’s a team.”
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