Three points: that’s what separated the Miller Career Academy boys basketball team from the eventual Missouri Class 4 state runner-up team, the Normandy Vikings.
“We didn’t play very well against Normandy but competed our butts off,” said Phoenix coach Dale Turner Jr. of his club’s 39-36 defeat to Normandy in the sectional championships this past season. Normandy’s unexpected run didn’t end until the championship final when the Vikings lost to Republic 54-51, but in retrospect it helped give credence to Career Academy’s defeat and successful season after all.
Phoenix’s banner 22-7 campaign and close loss to Normandy earned them a number 10 ranking in the final state poll released last month. In the process it earned 6-foot-3 senior guard Malik Brown, first-team, all-state honors.
Brown, who averaged 17.1 points per game, while rejecting 48 shots and coming up with 48 steals as well, is the only Public High League player on the squad. Being an all-state player also made Brown a sure bet for the all-PHL unit , which was voted on earlier in the offseason.
Joining Brown on the PHL’s all- conference unit were league scoring champion Derek Mitchell Jr. of Vashon and Adrenos Powell, the go-to force behind the surprising state quarterfinal run by the Gateway Tech Jaguars. Both Mitchell and Powell are 6-foot-1 senior guards.
Mitchell averaged an 24.0 points per contest in capturing the league’s scoring title, while Powell was second in scoring with a 20.2 scoring average and also garnered 69 total steals, as the Jaguars went on a postseason surge.
“His main thing is he’s very fearless and attacks the basket,” said Gateway Tech coach Bryan Turner (no relation to Career’s Dale Turner) of his star Powell. “If I tell him to get to the rack, he’ll find a way to get to the rack.”
The Jaguars, who finished an even 14-14 claimed the Class 4 District 4 title at St. Mary’s then went on to rout Festus 64-45 in the sectionals at Jefferson College, as Powell and 5-7 junior teammate Jason Johnson scored 18 points each.
“Johnson has been the most improved player since we went on our run,” said Bryan Turner during the playoffs. “I have seen some incredible things from him.”
Rounding out the all-PHL first team were senior guard Imani Reid of Carnahan, who averaged 17.5 points and collected a prolific 84 steals and Barion Jones of Northwest Academy, who averaged 15.9 points. Jason Johnson, of Gateway Tech, who finished with a 10.7 scoring average, were among the second-team selections. But Metro’s senior forward Ronnell Turner had perhaps the best all-around numbers on the second team, by averaging 16.1 points and a league-high 11.3 rebounds, which isn’t bad for a mere 6-1 forward.
Career Academy’s senior Shaunteze Sanders (7.9 points and 79 steals, Northwest Academy sophomore Demarkis Gary (14.6 points) and Carnahan senior Trevor Roberts and Roosevelt senior Demetrius Jackson were also members of the expanded six-player squad on the second unit. Jackson’s unofficial figures appeared to be underwhelming but Rough Riders coach Steven Hall cautioned that he stopped keeping individual statistics in an effort to promote the team concept. Hall said Jackson, a 6-2 junior guard/ forward had several games when he double-digit points and rebounds, but his club only turned the linescores.
“Jackson was my best all-around player at the end of the season and the other coaches recognized that, but we didn’t keep individual statistics in several games because we didn’t want the kids to get wrapped up in numbers,” said Hall, a former longtime assistant with the perennial state powerhouse Vashon Wolverines.
Career Academy, which won its first outright PHL title under Dale Turner, also rolled past Jennings 77-65 in the Class 4 District 5 finals at Soldan. Jennings fell behind by as much as 39-23 earlier before a third-quarter rally, but the Phoenix had to finally put it away behind some clutch late free throws by Justin Johnson, who sank nine of 11 from the charity stripe on the night. Malik Brown ignited the club early and finished with 23 points.
“Malik pulled us through early, then the other players like Johnson stepped up later,” remarked Turner afterwards. “We kept working and working and it paid off. I told them how much I will need all of them to pull us through it.”
“We bought into what the coach was saying,” explained Malik Brown. “Coach told us to play better defense as a team and trust each other.”
The district championship and accompanying plaque was particularly special to an extended member of the Career Academy program, the coach’s father Dale Turner Sr., as his son eventually presented him with the district title hardware after the post-game presentations.
“This is precious,” said a smiling Dale Turner Sr. as he sat in the stands. “I’ve been knowing most of these guys on the team since they were younger. This probably means more to me than it does to my son to see him win district title as a head coach after winning it as an assistant (with former head coach Michael Brown). These guys worked really hard for this and that’s why this (plaque) is so precious.”
Meanwhile across town on the South Side of St. Louis, Gateway Tech was creating special highlights as well, despite being 1-5 and later 4-10 by mid- season. But a couple of quality ‘losses’ in December to very respectable Northwest Academy 79-75 and 63-58 defeat to Class 3 powerhouse and eventual state champion Madison Prep may have revealed Gateway Tech’s untapped potential.
“The guys were up for the game against Madison,” recalled Bryan Turner. “We controlled the tempo for three quarters. We used pressure basketball. Defense could always be a constant and we hung in there with great defense.”
But the Jaguars got on a roll to win nine of their last 11 games before being ousted by Sikeston 62-52 in the state quarterfinals, in a contest much closer in the waning moments than the final score would reflect: Gateway trailed by a single point (51-50) after a three-pointer by Powell with just 1:49 remaining in the game and 54-52 with just 58 seconds left, only to have Sikeston sink eight free throws in the last 58 seconds to ice the game.
“I told my guys that they had nothing to be ashamed of because we lost to a tough basketball program,” said Bryan Turner. “Sikeston has played in these types of games before and it is just our first one. I told them to soak everything in. My seniors cried because it was their last time putting on that Jaguar uniform.”
But the Jaguars do return two players likely to compete for the first all-PHL unit next season in Jason Johnson and 6-foot-3 freshman Kennis Body, who averaged 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. Body added 13 points in the Sikeston defeat.
“I think next years’ group will be very determined and focused to get back to this same game and make the corrections to get over the hump, ” added Turner.
Likewise Career Academy’s Dale Turner will be aiming to get over the hump after the low-scoring sectional loss to a Normandy team, not initially projected as a state title contender. Still, Turner knows that a better performance could have dramatically changed his club’s post-season fate.
“It was sort of an ugly game and we just hung around,” said Turner. “Our defense was very good but our offensive play was static at best. Both teams are similar because they get after you defensively from the tip and make things difficult.”
Career Academy graduates several key players, including Brown, Sanders and Gabriel Coach, but they return 6-3 junior forward Rashid Bivens, who averaged 7.1 points and Johnson, a 6-1 junior guard/ forward who scored 19 points in that Jennings win.