By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
In the six years prior to Mark White’s arrival, the East Mississippi Community College men’s basketball program averaged six wins a season. The Lions had just six wins combined the previous two years, one in division play.
Now six seasons later, White has EMCC looking for its fourth straight region championship and fourth consecutive berth in the NJCAA national tournament. That dramatic turnaround and consistent success is The Star’s No. 2 sports story of 2012.
Heck, the Lions have even surpassed the expectations of the former Mississippi State assistant.
“Because it had been so down, and all coaches think they are good coaches and confident in their abilities, as I was,” he said as the Lions prepared in March for their third straight trip to Hutchinson, Kan., for the national tournament. “But when I got here and first looked at it, I kind of felt that if we could win 15 games a year, that would be pretty good. Just because of where the program had been. Coming from winning two games one year and four the next, if you’re winning 15 games, that’s pretty good.
“I’ve just been lucky and blessed that we’ve been able to get the program where it is. But I never could imagine that we’d be sitting here five years later and we’d be going to Hutch and the national tournament three straight years.”
But the Lions and White haven’t relied just on luck. EMCC has exerted a lot of hard work, especially on the defensive end, in turning the program around. Last season, the Lions allowed just 60 points per game in making that third straight run to nationals.
“We have built a tremendous program, both defensive and through hard work” star guard D.J. Evans, who helped steer the Lions to those past two region championships, said in March. “We’ve built a powerhouse.”
A powerhouse, especially at the right time. While the NJCAA has revamped its national tournament structure this past year to allow non-region champs for the first time, EMCC’s three straight runs came in a win-or-go-home format. All three seasons, the Lions entered the region tournament off state tournament losses that fueled the title drive.
“It comes down to knowing that it could be your last game of the year and we don’t want that happen,” Evans said at the time. “As a team, we just come together as one and do whatever it takes to get the win.”
And with it, the unexpected. But yet also expected.
“Before the season when we were practicing and seeing how hard and physical our practices were, we had a feeling we could be good enough to get back,” White said. “And then as some Division I coaches came through that had been other places, and they told us that we were right there. That our talent level was right there with anybody else.
“So we came into the year thinking we could be here.”