Naturally, the final step in Jefferson’s bid to make history will be the hardest. If the Dragons are to win the school’s first-ever state championship in boys’ basketball, they’ll have to go through the top-ranked team in Class AAA and one of the best players in the nation to do it.
Jefferson (22-7) will face Pace Academy (27-4), led by highly-rated guard Matthew Cleveland, Thursday (March 5) at 8 p.m. in Macon in the Class AAA state finals.
“They’re by far the best team we’ve faced all year,” Dragon coach Kevin Morris said. “They’re extremely good, and they deserve all the credit that they get, and they’re a big-time basketball team. But, we’re pretty good, too. I just feel like we’re tough and we’re gritty and we’re going to make things as difficult on them as we can.”
Cleveland, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard for Pace Academy, is the No. 14 player in that nation in the 2021 recruiting cycle (according to 247 Sports). The junior, who is averaging 22.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, thrives on opposing team’s mistakes. When the ball is turned over, the Knights frequently pitch the ball ahead to Cleveland for fast-break points.
“A lot of his stuff comes from the other team’s turnovers in transition,” Morris said. “He’s really good in transition. He’s really good at finishing at the rim.”
The coach said a big part of limiting Cleveland is “us not screwing up offensively,” Morris said.
Morris said his team, winners of 13-straight games, must limit its mistakes and make the Knights work for their points. Jefferson can ill-afford live-ball turnovers against Pace Academy’s press that lead to scores in transition.
And that’s where Jefferson may have an advantage over some of the Knights’ opponents this year. The Dragons typically keep a handle on the ball.
“I think we’ll handle that pressure a lot better than most,” Morris said. “I hope that’s going to be a good thing for us.”
But even if Jefferson limits its turnovers, it must also contend with Pace Academy’s height. The Knights start a 6-7 player with Cleveland, 6-6 players Cole Middleton and Josh Reed and a 6-5 player, Madison Durr.
“Oh yeah, no doubt, the thing that’s so difficult about them as well is that they’re just so dang big,” Morris said, noting that his team has two 5-foot-8 starters.
Keeping Pace Academy off the boards could be a particularly tall order.
“They do a really good job of offensive rebounding,” Morris said. “So, we’ll have to be ready for a great night of boxing out for sure.”
In addition to Cleveland’s scoring, Middleton is averaging 12.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while Durr is averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 assists per game. Reed averages 8.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Morris’s message to the team in the face of these challenges is simple.
“We’re going to try to be us,” he said. “We’re going to do what we do and just leave that place with no regrets and no thoughts of what could have been … I don’t think the stage is going to be too big for them,” Morris said.