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Big Red, sharp-shooting Caster lead Jackson to state crown

Jackson’s Micah Caster shoots against American Christian Friday night in the Class 4A state championship game at Legacy Arena in Birmingham. Caster scored 30 points in the Aggies’ 56-43 victory and was named the tournament MVP. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

Jackson coach Anthony Hayes exults in the closing seconds of the Aggies’ 56-43 win over American Christian in the Class 4A state finals Friday night in Birmingham. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

Jackson’s Keeyun “Red” Chapman powers inside against American Christian’s Eric Hines Friday night in the Class 4A finals in Birmingham. Chapman’s clutch play in the fourth period, including a huge block of Hines’ attempted dunk, sparked the Aggies to a 56-43 win. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

Jackson’s Nasir Powell hugs the Blue Map after the Aggies won the Class 4A state title Friday night in Birmingham. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

 

By JIMMY WIGFIELD

BIRMINGHAM — Micah Caster’s three-point cloudburst finally dried up and underdog American Christian, with all its backdoor cuts and precise screens and ball fakes, had No. 1-ranked Jackson looking around in the fourth period to see where its deliverance would come from.

It came from a 6-foot-4 sophomore nicknamed Red who brought the Blue to Clarke County.

With the Aggies holding a precarious 44-41 lead, Keeyun “Red” Chapman emphatically rejected what seemed like a sure dunk from the Patriots’ Eric Hines, sending it out toward 19th Street and presumably bounding down the Red Mountain Expressway.

And with that — with the reaction to the block from fans reverberating through the building — No. 6-ranked American Christian found itself on the expressway home. It was held scoreless for six minutes in a span of the third and fourth periods and saw Jackson close as champions with a 24-4 run that led to a 56-43 victory in the Class 4A finals and the school’s first basketball Blue Map Friday evening at Legacy Arena.

“What a fun game to be a part of,” Aggies coach Anthony Hayes said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in these kids. They let me coach them hard.”

Jackson (30-2) — which finished the season on a 20-game winning streak — had trailed 39-32 in the third period on Hines’ reverse lay-in but Chapman’s block with just under four minutes left seemed to turn the Aggies’ man-to-man defense into a raging, defiant monster and forced the Patriots into a faster tempo they had so far managed to avoid.

“Y’all in trouble! Y’all in trouble!” Jackson’s fans taunted as the Aggies’ lead grew in the final minutes.

During the timeout following Chapman’s block, Hayes gathered his players and didn’t hold back.

“Let’s go win the state championship,” he told them.

And they did.

“When Keeyun plays at that level, everyone else has no choice but to match it,” Hayes said. “It ramped up everybody.”

Chapman knew the game had reached a crucial moment. After the block, Jackson scored the next 12 points.

“I knew I had to get that block,” said Chapman, who had three. “I like blocking shots. I believe that gave us the momentum. I couldn’t let (Hines) dunk it.”

American Christian coach Austin Grammer could only pay tribute to Chapman.

“You give me that situation 10 times and I’ll take Eric 10 times,” Grammer said. “They made the play that time.”

Tournament MVP Caster — a senior guard who had suffered through a 4-of-13 three-pointer slump from the previous three games — almost singled-handedly kept the Aggies close through three periods, scoring 26 of their 40 points on 7 of 8 long balls and finishing with 30 points.

Caster ended the third period with a coast-to-coast layup and followed with two free throws with 6:06 remaining to give Jackson the lead for good at 42-41 but he didn’t score from the field in the fourth period.

Chapman, who had lurked in the shadows most of the night, then stepped forward in the fourth period with the block, a layup, a steal and a free throw. He is one of three sophomore starters who might force Hayes to make room for more than one Blue Map.

As it was, Hayes was punching the air in front of the team’s celebrating fans in one corner of the arena as the final seconds drained away and gleefully making plans to remove the state runner-up Red Map from his office and replace it with the Blue Map.

“I’m tired of looking at it,” said Hayes, who had to accept the Red Map while with Monroe County when it lost to Hale County in the 2017 finals. “This was my fourth trip here. I’ve had that Red Map in my office. I’ve got to move it now.”

While holding the Blue Map in the quiet of center court just before leaving Legacy Arena, Hayes said he wasn’t sure what would happen to the Red One.

“It can go anywhere it wants to go,” he said.

Caster, the Aggies’ leading scorer at 18.8 points per game, did whatever he wanted for the first three periods.

“That’s who he is,” Hayes said. “I’m glad he got to do it on the big stage for people to see. We go as far as he goes and tonight, he took us to the state championship.”

The Patriots, who led for 19 of the 32 minutes, took all of Caster’s three-point poison they could swallow in a game with three ties and eight lead changes.

“It was one of those games where the rim looked just as big as it could be,” Caster said. “It doesn’t matter what you do, it goes in. … You wake up and you know it’s your last game. I felt I had to do something. I’m glad the shots I had been making in practice went in. I wanted the ball. They’d score and I’d want to push back.”

He, too, said he was sick of looking at the Red Map in Hayes’ office.

“You talk it and talk it,” Caster said. “This year, we worked and worked. When the bright lights shined, we shined brighter.”

Jackson had two problems it had to solve and did — showing it could produce outside and defending American Christian’s deliberate offense.

The Aggies had struggled from the perimeter in the last three games, making just 9 of 35 threes.

“I knew we could shoot the ball,” Hayes said. “But coming out of regionals, there were teams saying we couldn’t shoot.”

And the Patriots (26-8) featured a high-post offense that left Jackson vulnerable to penetration and cut down on its inside help.

“They played good,” Hayes said. “We knew what they did and we were ready for it but we couldn’t simulate it. … They run a lot of action, a lot of back cuts, that we don’t see. We needed to see it and identify it.”

Grammer complimented the Aggies for adjusting to it but also knew what and who hurt his team most.

“That was a testament to their ability,” he said. “They’re a great team. The big equalizer was Micah Caster. We started off in zone and he got us out of that quick. Then we went man and tried to deny him and he shot us out of that too. It was their night.”

Forward Landon Duckworth, another sophomore starter who has committed to South Carolina as a quarterback, added 10 points.

“Jackson is football through and through,” Hayes said. “I’ve got a five-star (football recruit) sitting next to me. He was willing to play. He didn’t have to.”

Point guard Davis Dare led American Christian with 11 points, although he made just 1 of 10 field goals. His drives to the basket drew fouls and he made 9 of 11 free throws.

With the victory and the Blue Map in hand, the Aggies tied the school record for 30 wins in a season set by Ned Harbuck’s 1981-82 team. But the 2024 team made history in a season Caster didn’t want to end.

“I wish we had some more games,” Caster sighed as he looked at the empty court on the way out of Legacy Arena, a state championship cap clamped on his head.

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