JEFFERSON — They have been described by some fans around the state as looking more like the lineup for High School Musical than a high school basketball team.
“We had some people on twitter and other social sites try to shake us up by talking about how we look and things like that. I guess some people could see that with this group. Not all of our guys look like (your classic) players,” said Jefferson boys coach Kevin Morris, who despite the obvious disparaging, has taken it all in stride along with the rest of the Dragons. “But I think that also has played to our advantage. We don’t worry about that kind of stuff.”
There’s a tall, lanky 6-foot-9, 200-pound senior Jacob Radaker in the middle to go with quicker-than-they-appear 6-2 senior twin guards Owen and Daniel Parker, as well as 5-8 junior flash Kam Robinson. Physically none strike many opponents with fear at first glance. However, 6-3, 194-pound sophomore Malaki Starks is a physical specimen no matter where he’s standing. Radaker leads the team in scoring at 16.0 points and 7 rebounds per game and is shooting 63 percent from the field. Owen Parker is averaging 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, Starks is scoring 9.4 points and pulling down 6.5 rebounds a game, and Robinson is averaging 8.7 points a game.
“We’re a pretty skinny group overall, except for Malaki,” Morris said. “We may not look imposing but these kids can really play, and they play well as a group. There was a lot of internet chatter before we played Pierce County (in the second round) about whether we could hold up against a really good, athletic team. We led that game basically from start-to-finish. I think after that we opened a few eyes.”
Clearly, whatever observations non-Jefferson fans were alluding to, have been deceiving. The Dragons have more than looked the part of a championship-caliber team during the 2020 playoff season.
The Dragons (22-7) have won 13 straight games and dispatched their four playoff opponents by an of 13.7 points to land themselves in their first-ever Class 3A state championship game. They will take on No. 1-ranked Pace Academy (27-4) at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Macon Centreplex for the state title.
But despite catching fire at the right time, Jefferson is not the hottest team going in the 2020 finals. The Knights, who are ranked ninth in all classifications in Georgia by MaxPreps, have won 17 straight games, are undefeated against Class 3A opponents this season (19-0), and have thrashed their playoff opposition by an eye-popping 31.5 points a game so far.
“Pace is a great team and I think it’s going to be a huge task for us,” Morris said. “There probably isn’t a person in the state that covers basketball that thinks we can win this game, at least on paper. But people have been saying that about us all season.
“This is a resilient group with a lot of heart that just comes out ready to play to do whatever it takes to win a game and they don’t care who is getting the points. Heart is a hard thing to measure on paper.”
Before the 13-game win streak, however, it was easy to see why there may have been some doubters. At one point the Dragons stood just 7-6 on the season and were mired near the bottom of the Region 8-3A standings.
Morris was ready with a quick rebuttal on that one.
“Oh, you can blame that on the football team. They're too good,” he said with a chuckle. “We had several guys, including two starters, miss the first seven games. It takes time to get into basketball shape and to get everyone integrated into the system and on the same page, so to speak. But there was no real panic.
“We felt coming into the season we had the talent, if everyone stayed healthy, to make a (playoff) run. To be honest, and not to sound cocky or anything, I’m not really all that surprised that we got here. These kids can play.”
However, Morris also admitted he did something before the season he has never done in his more than 20-plus years of coaching.
“We talked about the state title,” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever done that. As a staff, we didn’t take it lightly as to whether we would have that conversation (in preseason). But I really thought coming into the season we had the pieces and the talent to get to this point.
“Now, a lot of things also have to go your way. Can’t have major injuries; you have to play well in the playoffs; the matchups have to be good ones. So far, all of those have gone well for us.”
Matchups are key, no doubt. And none will have offered what is in store for the Dragons on Thursday.
Pace won back-to-back state titles in 2016 (Class 2A) and 2017 (Class 3A) and has been ranked at or near the top of the Class 3A rankings all season. They have a margin of victory of 20.8 ppg for the season and only four times during their win streak has the opposition scored over 48 points. The Knights also are shooting 49 percent from the floor and 56 percent on 2-point shots.
Their starting lineup features four players 6-5 or taller -- juniors Madison Durr, Cole Middleton, Matthew Cleveland, and senior Ben Crawford -- along with a pair of quick interchangeable guards in 6-foot senior George Adams and 5-10 junior Josh Mininberg. Middleton is averaging a double-double with 12.0 points and 10.1 rebounds a game. Cleveland leads the team in scoring at 22.6 ppg and is pulling down 8.2 rebounds a contest.
“They dunk a lot and that certainly will help your shooting percentage,” Morris said. “To me, their strength is their length on defense. They get a lot of points in transition on turnovers. It’s not the smothering kind of press like the old East Hall teams but it is a tough one. The real key will be for us to limit the live-ball turnovers and then make them play a half-court game.”
However, the Knights also may not have played a team similar to the Dragons in the playoffs. All five guys can handle the ball and break down a pressing defense. All five can score inside or out. They have beaten teams in a variety of ways.
“The thing I like about our team is that we can score in a lot of different ways with a lot of different guys,” Morris said. “Against Monroe-Albany [a 55-45 win in the quarterfinals] we didn’t hit a single 3-pointer after halftime. Against Central-Macon in the semifinals [a 66-58 victory] we hit 40 percent from 3-point range.
“Our goal is always to try and get it inside to Jacob. But against Central, he comes out to start the fourth quarter in a tie game and hits three straight 3-pointers. I feel like we can offer some matchup problems for them as well.”
Morris also felt despite the recent success of the Knights in Macon, there really isn’t an advantage in experience.
“That’s basically a whole new group for them so I don’t know if that’s a big factor or not,” he said. “All I know is that we’re not going down there feeling like we’re an underdog, even though I’m sure we are to most people. We’re the only team left with a chance to beat them and we’re going there feeling like we can.
“We’ll see where we are sometime around 10 o’clock.”
NOTES: The Dragons had been 0-3 in the semifinals in their history until last week. ... It is the 4th-ever finals appearance for the Knights (2-1) in their history but the third time in the last five seasons ... Pace Academy's margin of victory in the playoffs: 31.5 ppg. However, they are just 4-2 in games decided by 10 points or less ... Jefferson's margin of victory in the playoffs: 13.7 ppg, won three games by 10 points or less in the playoffs and are 5-0 in such games during their current win streak.