Meridian basketball coach Ron Norman easily recalls the moment Jay Malone’s talent on the hardwood became apparent to him.
It was late January 2017, and the Wildcats were without standouts LeDarrius Brewer and Tyron Brewer for two games. Malone shouldered their absence by scoring 28 and 30 points against Oak Grove and Laurel, respectively.
“After that, I knew we were going to win the state championship because I knew he was ready to go then,” Norman said.
Malone and Meridian did, in fact, win the MHSAA Class 6A state championship that year, and Malone was named most valuable player of the title game after scoring 26 points to go along with four rebounds.
Malone’s spent the last two seasons at Southwest Mississippi Community College, and in the fall, he’ll sport a new uniform when he takes the court for the University of Southern Mississippi.
Malone, a point guard, signed with Southern Miss last November.
“Growing up, it was always a dream to play Division I basketball, so I’m just appreciative for the opportunity that I have to play here,” Malone, 20, said. “It means a lot, to be honest.”
Malone was part of a three-member 2018-19 early signing period recruiting class by former Golden Eagles coach Doc Sadler, who resigned from the position in April. Jay Ladner was named Southern Miss’ head basketball coach on April 18.
Malone said his commitment to Southern Miss never wavered despite Sadler’s resignation.
“Coach Ladner wants to get the best out of you, and he’s going to demand it,” Malone said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I would be coached and held accountable. That’s really what attracted me to stay.”
Malone and Ladner also had a previous connection. Before taking over at Southern Miss, Ladner served as Southeastern Louisiana University's head coach for five seasons.
“He was recruiting me for Southeastern (Louisiana), so he and I had a relationship way before the move,” Malone said.
Malone redshirted his first year at Southwest Mississippi but started in 17 contests during his redshirt freshman season. He scored a team-high 14.3 points per game and averaged another team-high 29.4 minutes per contest. He scored more than 20 points per game on three occasions, and posted a season-high 25 points against Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
Malone said his redshirt year prepared him mentally and physically for the college environment.
“I was really looking for mature growth, and I feel like I got that,” Malone said. “College is really different, so I really needed that year to mature my body and mature my mind. Coming out of high school, you don’t really know the do's and don’ts of college, so that was just a great year for me to get accustomed to college.”
With Ladner, a Southern Miss alumnus, returning to the state to energize his alma mater, Malone said there’s a loud buzz around the program regarding the new era.
“I really appreciate coach giving me the opportunity to be on this team this upcoming year,” Malone said. “I feel like we have a good chance to be great this year, so I’m looking forward to it. Everybody gets along, and everybody is trying to make each other better day by day.”
If the past offers any indication for the future, Norman believes Lander and Southern Miss will be in good hands with Malone. Norman arrived at Meridian for Malone’s senior season.
“He made my transition to Meridian so easy,” Norman said. “Once he bought in, everything was great. He was a great player, and he’s a leader. That’s the greatest thing about him — he’s a leader. He’s a floor general, and he made everything easy.”