By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The vibe and energy around the 2021-22 Millington Trojans is different these days.
The players of Head Coach Jewell Gates are sitting at full attention. After the completion of the 79-63 victory over the Lead Academy Panthers in the William Osteen Gymnasium, the Trojans got an instant report card from Gates in the locker room.
The win over Lead Nov. 23 improved Millington to 3-0 on the young season. Gates and his staff headed to his office where the familiar photo of Kentucky Basketball legends Anthony Epps and Coach Rick Pitino hang among other hoops artifacts.
“Anthony Epps is attached to Rick Pitino in that picture,” Gates noted. “I got a couple of guys who are getting there with me. It doesn’t matter what Pitino is saying to him there. He’s like ‘I got it Coach. I will handle it.’”
After the 16-point win over the Panthers, Gates’ vibe was that a couple of his players are accepting the role of Epps – being that extension of him on the court.
In the first 8 minutes the Panthers came off the bus from Nashville ready to steal a win in Flag City. Lead was 12-11 late in the opening period. Millington took its first advantage of the night when Diego Reyes scored on a layup to make the score 13-12.
The Panthers managed to hit the final basket of the first quarter to lead 14-13. The Trojans turned up the defensive intensity holding the Panthers to 12 points.
“That’s what I want us to be able to do, take the best punch from someone,” Gates said. “Whether it’s a solid team, bad team or great team, it doesn’t matter. Everybody is going to have one good punch in them and you have to counter it. I think we’re finally getting to the level where we can do our thing no matter what the other person does. That’s a good thing.”
Meanwhile Millington dropped 20 points in the period starting with a Seth Grandberry triple. After Trojan forward Blake Garner drilled a three-pointer, Grandberry drove to the rack for a deuce giving the Trojans a 21-17 advantage.
The Panthers would not regain the lead for the rest of the contest. Millington received another triple in the second quarter from BJ Gilmore that made the tally 26-22. Baskets from Gilmore and Reyes closed out the first half with Millington ahead 33-26.
“This is the most offensively blessed group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Gates noted. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that. Offensively this is the best group we’ve had here in my five years. If they get that fight in them like those first two years, along with what we can do offensively now?
“I am not one to say what we’re going to do,” he added. “But we’ll be a tough out if we can get that fight those Bryce (Mattox) teams had those two years. We’ll be a tough team.”
Millington’s offensive output improved to 23 points in the third quarter once again with Grandberry sparking things with a jumper.
Later a Gilmore three-pointer made the score 38-28. Josh Harris contributed to the Trojans’ production from the paint to make the score 56-40 in favor of Millington after three quarters.
In the fourth quarter the Millington offensive sets were working to near perfection with Reyes scoring on a give-and-go play. Grandberry danced with the ball along the perimeter leading to a floater and easy layup.
Then Garner became a playmaker, hitting a cutting Harris with a pass for drive to the rim for a layup. Then Garner located Reyes with a pass for a score.
“That’s the toughness,” Gates said, “toughness means to make that right play at the right time so we can finish off an offensive set. It still does mean a little physicalness. You’re not going to punk me.
“That toughness physically, mentally and even emotionally, because you have to be tough enough emotionally to play for me,” he continued. “You can’t wear your heart on your sleeve playing for me. Because I am going to punk you. And I don’t want to be able to punk you. If you can stand up against me, you can handle anything out there on that court. We’re getting there.”
Grandberry said things are getting there because the coaches and players are on the same page.
“We’re winning, so it’s happy spirits,” he acknowledged. “We’re 3-0, so a good start to the season. We want to keep the momentum going into the next game.
“We set a goal, everyday in practice strive for the goal,” Grandberry added. “We know there will be bumps in the road obviously but this season is going to be special trust me.”
Grandberry, a junior, said he knows adversity is coming, but he wants to shoulder that responsibility of keeping Millington on pace for a memorable 2021-22 season.
“Like Coach says when we lose, ‘I can take it.’ So as a player and being the player I am, I can take it. I can handle it. I know it’s going to be there but I can take it.
“He talks about that picture all the time, how close they are,” he concluded. “I am starting to feel the contraction now with my Coach. I am happy now. The first two years I was learning him. The next two years I am ready and our relationship will get better and better.”