January 9, 2019 11:02:21 AM
New Hope High School eighth-grader LJ Hackman has been preparing for this moment for some time.
Hackman said New Hope boys basketball coach Drew McBrayer told him to "shake things up" when he entered a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A, Region 4 home game against Noxubee County on Tuesday night.
Hackman did just that with three second-half 3-pointers in the Trojans' 46-37 victory in their region opener.
"In the second half, I looked out there and we had a freshman (Caleb Parr) and two eighth-graders (Hackman and Eric Thomas) on the floor at the same time," McBrayer said. "After you think about it, you don't want to think about it. However, sometimes you look at it and think, 'Man, we have some great young players.' I choose to look at it that way."
Last season, RL Mattix was the lone sophomore starter on a veteran team that advanced to the state tournament in Jackson. On Tuesday, he was at point guard with those rising standouts at a critical junction.
"The older guys have been great," Parr said. "They are always encouraging, telling us young guys to keep our heads up. There is a lot of respect. They treat us like we belong on the floor with them. It's exciting to be out there making plays in the varsity game, helping the team win."
At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds Parr shows natural athleticism. He has a nice touch on his 3-point shot, but he also can bang underneath for rebounds and putbacks. His wingspan makes him dangerous on defense.
"He really emerged during the summer," McBrayer said. "A year ago, we had that set lineup. We had players that had played together for a while. We knew when that season ended we had some question marks (for this year). Caleb really came on during the summer. The older guys took to him right away. He stood out as the type of player that was going to help us win. He is not through growing, either. He could easily pick up another three or four inches."
Parr led the Trojans with 12 points, while Hackman turned his 3-point spree into a 10-point night. Junior Jaylen Smith also had another tremendous night off the bench with nine points.
The Trojans won their fourth-straight game, but the offense remains a work in progress.
In the opening half, New Hope (8-8, 1-0 region) missed 29 of 34 shots from the field. However, the Trojans only turned the ball over twice and led 14-13 at halftime.
"We told the guys at halftime to keep shooting," McBrayer said. "There was no way we were as bad as our numbers in the first half would indicate. We were taking care of the basketball and getting good shots. If you are doing that, the only thing you can say is keep shooting."
In the third quarter, Smith hit a 3-pointer and followed it with a steal and an old-fashioned 3-pointer play for a 26-21 lead.
After missing eight of their first 10 shots in the second half, the Trojans later hit six of seven, including three by Hackman.
"After that first shot went down, the confidence level went up," Hackman said. "It's humbling being out there with the juniors and seniors like that. The older guys just keep telling me to keep working, they keep encouraging me. It means a lot they think of me as one of them."
Early game offensive struggles have been commonplace for the Trojans. McBrayer finds comfort that he can go up and down his bench with game-changing prospects.
"Just give us a spark," McBrayer said. "That's what we tell all of them. When we are in a lull, just make a play, do something to get things going for us."
Presley Langford hit a 3-pointer as the third quarter expired to give New Hope a 29-21 lead. McBrayer called that shot the biggest in the game.
Hackman then provided separation in the fourth quarter. Fellow eighth-grader Thomas added a couple of critical rebounds and a blocked shot.
"Never quite had a team like this," McBrayer said. "We may go deeper than we ever have. Everybody loves to come to practice and loves to work. We have come a long way."
Parr has seen the team grow up, too.
"We are a much different team from the start of the season," Parr said. "District play is here and we hope to get on a little bit of a roll. It just took some time for us to figure out the type of team we could become."
Zeterrius Rice led Noxubee County (5-5, 0-2) with 11 points.
In the opener, the New Hope girls (7-8, 1-0) rolled to a 57-27 victory. Juquala Sherrod led the Lady Trojans with 15 points.
n In other action Tuesday, the Center Hill swept a doubleheader from Columbus in non-district action.
In the girls game, Center Hill won 37-34. Hannah White led the Lady Falcons (13-2) with 12 points.
Center Hill (18-1) took the boys game 77-67. The Falcons are 6-11.
n The Heritage Academy boys basketball team beat Canton Academy 55-40 in Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class AAA, District 2 action.
Eli Acker and Jared Long had 13 points, while Carter Putt had 11 for the Patriots.
n The Itawamba Agricultural High boys basketball team edged Caledonia 56-54 in a MHSAA Class 4A, Region 2 game in Fulton.
n The Columbus Christian Academy boys defeated Hebron Christian 62-38 in Pheba.
Lawson Studdard led the Rams with 24 points. Isaiah Cooper added 13 and freshman Jeremy Emerson had nine.
CCA will play host to Central Holmes on Thursday in a non-district game.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.