Practice had just ended, and East Memorial boys coach Scott Phillips was all packed and ready to head home.
That was before Jaylen McCoy decided to launch a few more jump shots. Two hours later, the sophomore guard figured he’d done enough perfecting of his jumper for one evening.
It’s that type of dedication toward improvement that separates this season’s East Memorial squad from last year’s happy-go-lucky bunch of overachievers who reached the AISA Class AAA semifinals.
“We talked about last year a lot,” Phillips said. “We talked about it in October, about how close we got to tasting (the championship). We didn’t expect that last year. We were 0-5 to start, won 12 in a row in January, then we’re in the Final Four against Lee-Scott.
“Now our kids expect to be there, and they’ve played like that since November. Ever since the first day of practice, I’ve seen the focus in their eyes. It’s been unbelievable.”
Monday’s win over Lowndes Academy wrapped up a 24-2 regular season, including a 10-0 record against Class AA, Region 1 competition to earn one of the two top seeds in this week’s region tournament.
There could have been a huge drop-off following the transfers of starters Tommy Burton and Jacob Winston. The pair played important roles last season.
Senior forward Dashun Bartley believes this year’s players have depended more on each other, and that has made this squad stronger.
“Even though we lost a couple of players, it seems like it kind of helped us in a way,” said Bartley, an All-State football selection. “We’ve got more team chemistry, and everybody is playing as one. I am just loving it right now.”
Of course, Phillips has needed production from all his players to lighten the burden on his prime-time players. Bartley, Matt Bair and Chandler Warren all have picked up their level of play.
“We knew what McCoy could do, we knew what (James) Pope could do,” Phillips said. “It’s the guys who we needed to mature that have made the difference. Chandler Warren has matured more than anyone on this team. Matt Blair has also matured, and that spills over to what we do.”
However, no one has stepped up quite like McCoy, who has raised his scoring average from last year’s 11.9 points oer game to 20.7 points.
“As McCoy goes, we go,” Phillips said of his point guard. “Everyone knows that. To see him take over games has just been joyous to see. He’s awesome to watch. He’s our floor leader and general. He makes everyone around him play better.”
East Memorial has never won a state championship in any sport, and last season’s experience has them wanting more.
“We all got one goal,” McCoy said. “We were so close last year. We want to be the first to do it.”