Refocused: Gates and Trojans put away the games, prepare to tackle challenge of new 3A league

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By Thomas Sellers Jr.

In the office of Millington Trojans Head Basketball Coach Jewell Gates hangs a photo of the former Kentucky Wildcats coach Rick Pitino with point guard Anthony Epps. 

The duo of Pitino and Epps won a National title and had a National runner-up together in the late 1990s. The pictures a few feet away from Gates’ desk illustrates the connection and bond Pitino had with Epps as the two men are touching foreheads in the middle of a heated contest. 

Since arrival in Millington the list of players who have become extensions of Gates on the floor like Epps for Pitino has grown expeditiously. Entering the 2021-22 campaign, Gates has a quartet he will place leadership roles upon helping to build toughness and incorporate the newcomers. 

“We looked at that picture and what that picture represents to me is total comfort with each other,” Gates noted. “It’s got to be full, ‘I am in Coach. You can say whatever you want to me, coach. I won’t walk away or shy away from you. I will be able to take whatever it is.’ 

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“I think we have three or four of those guys who can handle me, Josh Harris gets it,” he added. “Winston Moore is now at that level. Seth Grandberry is at that level. Diego Reyes I will give him his. He’s going to be like that now to where I can get in his face and he won’t shy away. Those four have had the biggest maturation.”

Moore and Grandberry are veteran backcourt players in Gates’ system. Moore is the floor general type of guard while Grandberry can be facilitator and scorer. 

Harris and Reyes are providing size, rebounding and interior defense for the Trojans. Gates is looking for them to increase their offensive production in the new season. 

Mixing in with the experienced foursome will be a couple of newcomers. 

“I guess high school is almost like college now with the transfer portal,” Gates said. “We did get a couple of guys who will make a difference BJ Gilmore and Greg Johnson. We’re expecting them to get us over this hump. 

“And I am going to give you another newcomer who was here last year but didn’t play a lot because of COVID, procedures and protocols — Blake Garner,” he continued. “This year will really be his first year of playing. His season was cut short last year. He missed about 7 or 8 games and almost a month of practice.”

Gilmore, Johnson and Garner will add size, athleticism and matchup problems for opponents and foes in the new district for Millington. 

“They will be three additions that will make us much better,” he said. “All three of them can play multiple positions but mostly the two and the three. Blake can play the one, a whole lot of two, a whole lot of three and a whole lot of four. Versatility is Blake’s biggest asset. He needs to be a facilitator, a Scottie Pippen type for the Chicago Bulls in the early and mid 90s.”

The Bulls were kings of the NBA back in the 1990s. The Trojans will try to be the top dogs in the new league featuring Fayette-Ware Wildcats, Raleigh-Egypt Pharaohs, Craigmont Chiefs and Bolton Wildcats. Will Millington be tough enough to take the championship?

“We have to wait and see,” Gates said. “You can’t choose or judge toughness in practice. You can get maybe half an assessment but you really don’t know until you get punched in the mouth by somebody. 

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Will you be able to be tough and be able to keep playing. I think we have it, we just have to go out and be able to do it. Once we show ourselves that we can be tough, then it will be an everyday occurrence.”

Craigmont and Raleigh-Egypt have proud basketball traditions with State appearances and the Chiefs winning the 2011 title. 

Bolton and Fayette-Ware played in the district with Millington last season. Bolton has a new coach and Fayette-Ware will be very competitive. 

“They don’t know too much about us either,” Gates said. “It will be good because it is a five-team tournament and three are automatically going to go to the district tournament. Avoiding that play-in game is very important. 

“Now you win once and you’re in,” he concluded. “I am being honest I don’t want to be in that play-in game. I don’t want it to come down to losing one game and your season is over just list that. I want us to be either one or two. I will accept three. The district tournament is here. I want to be playing games in it — not working it.” 

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