Basketball

Character, determination on display in Dutchtown’s improbable run to state

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By Bill Renje

HAMPTON, Ga. — As the Dutchtown Bulldogs get ready to host Morrow Friday night as the  No. 1 seed from Region 4-AAAAA, nobody would’ve thought that sentence would be written two weeks ago, and certainly not after the Tuesday Night Thrashing two months ago.

The scoreboard that night showed a final of Stockbridge 85, Dutchtown 27. For those not quick with math, that’s a 58-point gap. As the Bulldogs walked off their home floor following that mid-December thrashing, their inner-strength, character and perseverance would be tested to the core.

Sandwiched in-between an 18-point loss, their first in more than five years against Union Grove, and a loss to Jones County, both in region play, the Bulldog program threatened to implode.

Fingers were pointing in every direction. Players were being “clowned” on Twitter by their own classmates. The expectations following the best basketball season in school history were quickly evaporating.

As December ended, and the calendar turned, the Bulldogs were 5-11 overall, 3-5 in region play. What happened next is nothing short of astonishing. I’ve played, coached, watched as well as followed sports for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like the impossible turnaround to the Dutchtown season.

There’s no magic switch that was triggered as January began, with the team’s inner-strength being developed throughout the toughest of those trying December times.

Head coach Jamal Basit kept a calm, even-keeled demeanor, calling a team meeting to both challenge and, at the same time, rally the players around one another.

Even as few believed it, Basit kept telling them they were the most talented team in the region. He told them they were going to “Mike Jones the rest of the region.” A reference to rapper Mike Jones’ industry comeback.

“Honestly, it’s more what I told the coaches,” Basit. “My quote was ‘Make It A Positive.’ When you’re struggling, it’s easy to be negative. I wanted us to look at the basic situation and see the positive.”

Revivals, renewals, turnarounds, often start in unnoticed, under the radar places.

For Dutchtown, their Mike Jones moment began with a small, undersized senior guard coming back from injury right before Christmas. Daejon “DJ” Sledge isn’t somebody who gives you points off the bench. But what he gives you and what he is, is a kid with all kinds of heart that gives instant energy at both ends of the court.

In his first game back, Sledge was inserted into the game against Arabia Mountain with the Bulldogs down 12 late in the third quarter. His energy lead to a fourth quarter comeback capped by Kendall Cordell’s tip-in at the buzzer that gave Dutchtown a 86-85 victory.

Basit had been imploring the team to find an identity. Without much in the way of outside shooting, he wanted the team to commit to playing defense in order to create easy shots at the other end by getting their lightning-quick point guard and senior captain, Christian Blue out in space to run the court and generate easier shots.

Prior to Sledge’s return, Dutchtown had been awful defensively. His return was the spark it needed to develop the defensive identity Basit wanted.

“It was great for DJ to come back and help us,” said Blue. “He gave us an impact with energy, allowing us to keep the energy flowing through both starters and off the bench.”

Another jolt to the team came with the addition of Dontay King as the second semester started. King, who moved with his family from South Carolina is a powerful 6-foot-7 forward with all the tools. He’s big and physical, but extremely athletic, can run the floor, and has soft hands to go along with a finisher’s touch in the post.

King’s presence would help Dutchtown gain some confidence, going 6-3 in January. But still, those three losses were to the top three teams in the region – Eagles Landing, Stockbridge and Woodland by a combined 46 points.

Senior Night would foreshadow what was to come, and be the beginning of the five-game win streak the Bulldogs find themselves on now.

A must-win, that night against Jones County would be where senior guard Myles Johnson would finally find his touch. Johnson spent the summer and much of the Fall recovering from knee surgery after last season.

This season had been a disappointing grind for Johnson up until that point, and it didn’t look like it was getting any better, with Dutchtown seemingly destined for the sixth seed in  the upcoming Region 4-AAAA tournament.

In that Jones County game, they found themselves trailing by eight late in the third quarter.

But the inner-strength, character and perseverance of Johnson and his teammates would come to fruition. They played with the defensive identity that Basit had challenged them to play with, while Johnson, in his best game of the year, scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to lead his team to a come from behind 69-65 win.

Closing out the season with a blowout win over Locust Grove, Dutchtown went into the region tournament as the number four seed and in four days beat three teams they had gone 1-5 against in the regular season.

Even in the midst of a run through the region tourney, Dutchtown was not without adversity, as Basit missed the week with an illness. But veteran assistant Dwight Jackson more than capably led the squad.

Beating Union Grove 56-45 in the quarterfinals qualified the Bulldogs for the state playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. But upsetting ranked teams in Eagles Landing in the semis and Stockbridge in the finals gives them confidence going into State that they can play with anybody.

While avenging The Tuesday Night Trashing in a thrilling 83-80 double-overtime classic behind 37 points and 16 rebounds from King, 19 points from Blue and 11 from Johnson, the improbable victory gave the program its first region championship in school history, and perhaps the foundation for a greater legacy.

That’s what Johnson is thinking of, even as his team gets set to host Morrow Friday evening in a state tournament appearance that, just a few weeks ago seemed more than unlikely.

“I’ve been at Dutchtown since kindergarten,” Johnson said. “I’m part of the first group to go through the Dutchtown system from kindergarten through my senior year. And this season was about me leaving Dutchtown better than I found out.”

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