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Jackson boys basketball reaches SEMO Conference title game for first time in six years

Jackson 6-foot-8 senior post Clayton Ernst scored a team-high 13 points in the Indians 53-33 loss to Cape Central in the SEMO Conference Tournament Championship game on Friday at the Sikeston Field House. Photo by Jay Forness

Last week at the Sikeston Field House, the Jackson boys basketball team made program history by advancing to the SEMO Conference Tournament Championship game for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

The Indians (3-1), who were seeded No. 5 in this year’s conference tournament, reached the title game in convincing fashion.

“It was a very emotionally, physically exhausting week for the team,” first-year head coach Kory Thoma said. “With me being the head coach for the first time this year, I didn’t know the expectations [for the tournament] of how daunting it would be, but we played well.

“I was excited for the boys, the program and the community. When you’re seeded fifth and make the championship game, it’s kind of nice — pretty cool.”

Jackson first handled annual host No. 4 seed Sikeston (4-2) by 38 points at 79-41 last Tuesday for a meeting with No. 1 seed Charleston (4-4) Thursday. The Indians picked up an upset win over the Blue Jays by 28 points, sending Charleston to the third-place game with a 81-53 win.

Charleston won the Class 3 State Championship last year and finished with an overall record of 29-3 and returned the team’s lone all-state selection in 6-5 senior forward Rico Coleman. Jackson held him to only score five points, though.

“We talked about their personnel, who they had back and how good they were and deep,” Coach Thoma said. “Coach [Jamarcus] Williams coaches them well. We knew going in they wouldn’t slow the tempo down, so we had a chance.

“We made shots, and we played really good defense on them. When you play good defense and hit shots, it’s a nice combo. It was a statement win for us and this team.”

This set up a meeting between crosstown rivals Jackson and No. 2 seed Cape Central (6-0), which was coming off a 2-point thrilling win over No. 3 seed New Madrid County Central (5-2). The Tigers had fallen to the Eagles by four points, 44-40, in last year’s conference championship game.

Cape Central ended up bringing Jackson’s undefeated season to an end with a 20-point, 53-33 win for the Tigers to claim their first conference title since 2019-20. The Indians only produced two points in the fourth quarter as 6-foot-8 senior post Clayton Ernst was the only player for Jackson to score double digits with 13.

Ernst had been held to only three points — all off free throws — in the first half, but he erupted with 10 in the third quarter. Opposing post in Cape’s 6-8 senior Cameron Williams paced Clayton with seven points of his own in the quarter, but he ended up leading all scorers with 20 to finish the game.

“Clayton held up to his end of the bargain pretty well [against Cape Central],” Coach Thoma said. “He carried us through most of the game, and he had a big night offensively and defensively. We just didn’t get much going offensively, and Coach [Drew] Church does an amazing job with that group.

“He controlled the tempo the whole game, and we hadn’t been there — it was the first time we had to face adversity. It was a six to 10-point game all the way through early in the fourth quarter, and we only scored two points in the fourth.”

The Tigers also had another player finish in double digits as 6-2 freshman guard Marquel Murray produced 11 points (two 3-pointers) as he led all scorers with eight at the end of the first half. Cape 6-4 junior forward Jaydon Reynolds paced Williams and Murray with nine points.

As for Jackson, its second-leading scorers behind Ernst’s 13 points were 6-4 junior forwards Blayne Harris and Judd Thoma with six apiece. No other Indian scored more than one field goal against Cape Central.

“Cape is bigger than us I would say in all spots, which hadn’t been the case for us up until that point,” Coach Thoma said. “I learned a lot from the game — I’ve got to be able to create competitive advantages when we’re not scoring the basketball. My kids can always play defense, but if we’re not scoring the basketball I’m going to have to be creative. … Early losses are good losses because you can learn so much from you deficiencies.”

In the Charleston game, Jackson’s big three of Ernst, Harris and Thoma combined for 66 points as Blayne led with a game-high 26, followed by Clayton’s 21 and Judd’s 19. Ernst led the way against Sikeston with 20 points to combine with Thoma (16) and Harris (12) for 48.

“Those three kids can put the ball in the hole — they have competitive advantages over other high school basketball players,” Coach Thoma said. “I expect that from them, but we didn’t get great production from Blayne and Judd against Cape. They know that, and we’ve already discussed it. That’s just my job to get them better touches and better looks.”

Two other Indians scored reached double-digit points in game one of the conference tournament versus Sikeston in 6-4 junior forward Gavin Holdman and 6-0 senior guard Kaed Windborne with 14 and 10, respectively. Coach Thoma described this as a breakout game for Holdman.

The Indians now have three game till the Christmas Tournament: at Dexter (3-2) yesterday, at Vianney (4-2) Friday and versus Farmington (1-4) Tuesday.

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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