Team Mississippi

Members of Team Mississippi are, from left, front row, coach Tevin Campbell, Lamont Lacey Jr., Samarion Grant, Keivion Hunt, Jabarie Robinson and Jederion Lewis; back row, Devin Ree, coach Neil Henry, Avaughn Johnson and Parker Henry. Not pictured are Demontae Robinson and Demarcus Powe.

Demarcus Powe remembers the championship game at last year’s U.S. Basketball Games tournament in Cartersville, Georgia.

He and the rest of Team Mississippi were facing Alabama in the rising sophomores finals, and the image that sticks in Powe’s mind is the last-second 3-pointer Alabama made to clinch the game. While Mississippi wasn’t perfect throughout the game, Powe said they couldn’t have played the shot attempt any better than they did, which is why the loss still stings.

“It was good defense but a better shot,” Powe recalled. “We played great defense, but he hit the shot. There was a lot of stuff in the game we could’ve prevented like careless turnovers, but that shot, he just made it.”

The fifth-annual U.S. Basketball Games, which features travel basketball players from across the country, returns the weekend of Aug. 7-9 at the LakePoint Sports Complex in Cartersville, and with it comes a chance at avenging that loss a year ago, this time in the rising juniors division. Team Mississippi includes five players from East Mississippi — Powe (Meridian High School), Parker Henry (West Lauderdale), Demontae Robinson (MHS), Lamont Lacey Jr. (Wayne County) and Jederion Lewis (MHS) — as well as five players from the Jackson area to round out the 10-person squad. The team played in an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Jackson last weekend as Team Elite and finished first. Despite having not been able to practice together, Henry said it was almost like they hadn’t had any time away from one another.

“We’ve played with each other before, and I guess we just have good chemistry,” Henry said. “It is really the same group that was on Team Mississippi (last year) so we’ve all seen each other play before.”

Now, with the tournament in Cartersville approaching, Powe said he and his teammates feel like they have unfinished business.

“It’s still on my mind,” Powe said, referring to last year’s championship game loss. “That loss is going to make us a better team.”

The AAU season normally begins in the spring, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic none of the team members have been able to do any basketball activities outside of summer workouts with their high school teams, and even those practices are limited to just a couple of hours a day and two or three days per week.

“There are so many challenges,” Team Mississippi coach Neil Henry said. “We can’t get into gyms like we’ve normally been able to, so gym accessibility has been difficult. Just working on your own skill set has been tough because we take for granted that we can get into a gym and work out. This year has definitely been challenging, but these kids want to play. Just to go to this one tournament (in Jackson), we had to wear masks, have our temperatures taken, Lysol our shoes… coaching with a mask on is different for me. It’s just things we’ve had to make adjustments on so we can play.”

Those limitations didn’t stop the team from scoring, though. Neil Henry estimates his squad averaged between 65 and 85 points this past weekend, a good sign for their chances in Cartersville.

“We have to play better defense,” Neil Henry said. “That’s our biggest area we need to improve on. Most of the players on our team are one of, if not the best, offensive players on their high school teams, so we can score. We didn’t step into playing any type of zone defense, which we will do over (in Georgia). We’ll score the ball, it’s just a matter of being able to outscore our opponents and play a little defense.”

Parker Henry said the right mentality is a big part of having the right defensive intensity.

“We have to get back on defense, and everybody needs to crash the boards, which is something we didn’t really have last weekend,” Parker Henry said. “A lot of teams got easy layups on us because we didn’t get back on defense like we should have, but that should be an easy fix.”

Whatever defensive challenges they had in Jackson, Neil Henry said he doesn’t think it’ll be too difficult to get it corrected, either.

“The good part is they’ve played the game their entire lives, so if you throw in a defense, they can do it on the spot,” Neil Henry said. “They’ve played the game long enough to where that’s not a problem.”

The team includes 6-foot-7 Devin Ree, a junior shooting guard out of Terry, and junior Keivion Hunt out of Callaway, both of whom have drawn Division I interest, Neil Henry said. It’s a talented group overall, and Powe said it’s a blessing to play alongside players of that caliber because it takes the pressure off everyone.

“Honestly, with that much talent, you don’t really have to worry about one man doing it all,” Powe said.

The competition will be just as good, though, but Parker Henry said the mindset is the same as last year: win the tournament.

“I think we have unfinished business from last year when the team hit that buzzer beater,” Parker Henry said. “I’m sure none of us likes getting second place; it’s just not a good feeling. Not that I think about it every day, but every now and then you think about it, and it just comes up in your mind that we should have won that game.”

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