The MMI boys had a fan in the stands for Wednesday night’s AISA Class A semifinal against Cornerstone Christian they might not have counted on: Warrior star JaMichael Rivers.
MMI head coach Dr. Michelle Ivey said that thanks to the season-long rivalry between Warrior and her Tigers, Rivers paid a pre-game visit to the MMI locker room to help get the Tigers “pepped up” for a win that would set up one final clash with Rivers’ Braves in the Class A championship game.
Rivers got his wish. MMI used a 9-1 fourth-quarter run to grab control of a seesaw game and defeat Cornerstone 58-49. The Tigers got 30 points from senior Jovaris Smith and hit eight consecutive free throws in the final 1:14 to wrap up the win.
“It’s what both schools wanted,” Ivey says of a fourth, winner-take-all game between the Braves and Tigers. MMI won two regular season meetings in overtime before Warrior won the Area IV title on a Jamey Donaldson buzzer beater. “We know each other so well. It’ll be fun.”
MMI earned their spot in the title game thanks in large part to a big advantage on both the offensive and defensive boards. The game’s “turning point,” according to Ivey, occurred with 4:11 to play in the game and MMI down 40-39. Jerome Smith rebounded a missed Javoris Smith free throw and drew a foul as he scored the putback. Jerome Smith missed his free throw as well, but this time Wendell Crews rebounded the miss for a second putback and a 43-40 lead. MMI would not trail again.
“We thought we could get them on the boards,” Ivey said. “They’re a real athletic team, like us, and athletic teams sometimes don’t do a good job of boxing out, like we do a lot of times.”
MMI pushed the lead to 46-40 with 3:13 to play on a Jovaris Smith free throw, but a Cornerstone three-pointer less than a minute later cut the lead back to 48-45. The Tigers’ Kendrick Moore responded with a basket in transition with 2:17 left, however, and as Cornerstone began fouling Smith and Moore hit eight-of-eight down the stretch to ice the win.
“If you knew how many free throws we shot this week,” Ivey said, explaining that the Tigers had shot their practice free throws after running sprints, to simulate stepping to the line in the fourth quarter. “We knew free throws would matter. It’s easy to hit them at the beginning of the game, but we needed to be able to hit them in the fourth quarter, too.”
Jovaris Smith roared out of the gates, scoring eight points in the first five minutes of the game to help MMI to a 13-12 lead at the end of the first quarter. A 6-0 spurt in the middle of the second quarter propelled MMI to a 25-21 halftime lead, but behind a series of three-pointers Cornerstone took their first lead at 33-31 with 2:36 to play in the third quarter.
The two teams would exchange the lead five more times until Jerome Smith’s putback gave the Tigers the lead for good.
Jovaris Smith’s 30 led all scorers. He was followed for MMI by Moore with 14, Jerome Smith with 8, Crews with 4, and Sam Greene with 2.
“He showed up to play for 32 minutes,” Ivey said of Jovaris Smith. “He played great both ways. When 20 (Cornerstone’s Dustin Shears) hit a couple of threes, in the huddle he told us he wasn’t going to hit another one. We need that kind of leadership. But we’re also going to need someone else to step up and help with scoring tomorrow.”
Shears and Tyler Youngblood each scored 15 to lead the Chargers.
The win improved MMI to 23-2 on the season and earned a measure of revenge for last year’s Class A title game, when the Chargers defeated MMI in overtime. With the MMI girls having defeating Autauga Academy earlier in the day, both Tiger teams have now eliminated the schools that eliminated them in 2005.