BENTON — The Greenville Christian School Saints are the 2021 MAIS Class 2A state champions, and let the record show they did it the right way — they earned it.
In Saturday’s championship game at Benton Academy, the undefeated Saints had a counter for every punch thrown at them by crosstown rival St. Joseph Catholic School as they went on to claim the title with a 70-57 victory. This was the fifth time the Irish and Saints faced each other this season, and this time it was played with an even higher intensity. Every possession was a battle. Every loose ball was a clash, and every inside-the-paint matchup was a personal struggle.
The Irish may have lost to the Saints four other times this season, but they were still the defending state champions, a name they wore proudly all day long Saturday.
Led by their smooth general at point, DJ Smith, the tournament’s MVP who scored 29 points, GCS (21-0) outlasted a final St. Joseph comeback in the fourth quarter.
Behind seven quick points by St. Joe’s Omar Emmons and six quick points by Donnie Smith, the Saints saw their 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter cut to four, 56-52, with four minutes left in the game after St. Joe (15-9) went on a 13-0 run to start the final frame.
The rally forced GCS coach Logan Collins to call a timeout, and the Saints came out of their huddle with a renewed injury and put the game away by outscoring the Irish 14-5 to end the game.
“We talked about in the locker room at halftime how they (St. Joe) were going to come out and give it their best shot. We talked about how this was the state championship game and a rivalry game which means all bets are out the door,” said Greenville Christian coach Logan Collins said. “We let them go on a little bit of a run, but we weathered the storm and I am proud about how they played.
Said DJ Smith, “They are one of the toughest teams we have played all year. I just trusted my teammates and they trusted me to get a score. We kept telling ourselves. The game is not over. We got to keep going.”
The title, the fourth in program history, was the second state championship for Coach Collins at Greenville Christian. He previously coached the 2017 GCS team to a state title.
The victory was also the second state championship in just a few months for most of the players on the GCS team. In the fall, led by DJ Smith at quarterback, the Saints football team also took home the state title. Smith also led Greenwood High to the 2019 state football championship before transferring to GCS last summer.
Smith is just one of a number of Greenville Christian School players who transferred this school year to play for the Saints after their former schools decided to either cancel or severely delay their seasons because of the pandemic.
“I don’t know if I can do justice to what this title means,” Collins said. “It is a testament to how hard these guys have worked and everything they have overcome. With the new guys coming in and having to build chemistry and then having games canceled due to Covid-19. And then a week off because of the ice storm. It was a lot. For teenagers to be able to handle that and the adversity and come home with a state title, I am just proud of them.”
In the game’s final minutes, Smith started the GCS fourth quarter rally with a 3-point play, the old fashioned way, to put GCS back up by seven, 59-52, Curtis (11 points) and Josiah Claiborne would then combine for six straight points to put the game out of reach.
C.J. Moore led St. Joseph with 17 points in the game. Donnie Smith scored 14, Phillon Johnson scored 11 and Omar Emmons scored eight.
“I am so proud of my guys,” St. Joseph coach James Hunter said. “I don’t mind losing to a team if we gave it all we had, and we definitely gave it everything we had.
“I think we just kind of ran out of gas at the end. We got right there at the end, but we had to fight so hard after we dug ourselves that big hole.”
A 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter put the Saints up by six. GCS, then, took a 15-point lead at intermission thanks to a number of key plays by Saints Daishun Scott (14 points), Eric Ekanem, Will Riley and KD Rancifer, among others.
But Coach James Hunter’s Irish would storm back in the third quarter. Five quick points by St. Joe’s Phillon Johnson would help put the Irish down by just seven, 37-30, with four minutes left in the third. But, the Saints would soon counter after a Josh Curtis 3-pointer, a tough basket by Scott and a nice spin move in the lane by DJ Smith to put GCS back up by 15 heading into the final stanza.
More to play
Saturday’s championship game was not the end of Greenville Christian’s or St. Joseph’s season. Both teams will participate in this week’s MAIS Overall Basketball Tournament. On Wednesday at 6 p.m., the Saints will host Tri-County in the first round of the tournament.
St. Joseph will travel to Starkville Academy on Wednesday at 6 p.m. for its tournament opener.