HomeSportsUSJ has plenty of challenges, abilities to stay atop D2-A

USJ has plenty of challenges, abilities to stay atop D2-A

By Brandon Shields

Managing editor

University School of Jackson’s Division II-A state championship in girls’ basketball is different from a lot of other state championships.

USJ struggled for this championship.

In the five decades of the school’s existence, the Lady Bruins had never won a state championship.

They’d been to all of two state championship games.

When they hired Joel and Ashley Ayers to coach the program, there were hopes of the new day bringing new accolades.

The first year didn’t look much different than any before as the Lady Bruins made it past the region tournament but were eliminated in the first round – essentially the play-in round before the state quarterfinals.

In Year No. 2 (last year), they made it one step closer before being eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Then came this year.

Ayers put together a great schedule to prepare the team for district play.

The list of teams USJ played before Christmas and the teams that are playing in Murfreesboro this week from West Tennessee have a lot of overlap: Greenfield, Dyersburg, Huntingdon and South Fulton are all in both of those groups.

Also on USJ’s non-district schedule were Rossville Christian (a former Division II-A team that plays an independent schedule now and finished the season 22-1), McKenzie (who’d won the last two Class A state tournaments before being eliminated in the region semifinals this year by Wayne County, the team they’d beaten in both championships), Peabody, Obion County and Olive Branch, Miss.

But a loss to Peabody on Dec. 21 was the last time USJ would lose this season as they ended the campaign on an 18-game win streak.

Jackson Christian was the only team to stay within 10 points of them in the first 16 games of that win streak before the one-point win over Christian Academy of Knoxville in the semifinals and the triple-overtime triumph over Goodpasture in the championship.

Here’s how USJ stands out from most teams in this situation.

When a team fights and fights and fights for a state championship and finally gets over the hump, they do it with an older team with a lot of experience.

South Side in 2023 is a good example of that. The Lady Hawks had been so close for a few years and they finally did it last year, and they lost three really good seniors including a Miss Basketball winner and the beginning of the following season the program started all over in a number of ways with a large freshman class and a lot of new players.

But this USJ team is different.

Ava Barham is their only senior. Ellen Driver is their only junior.

That means they lose an important player off this year’s team. While a lot of the attention on this team from the outside is on Haylen Ayers, if you watch this team for more than two or three games, it’s not hard to see that Barham was the heart and soul of this team.

In the region championship win over Jackson Christian a couple weeks ago, there was a difference in the Lady Bruins when she wasn’t on the floor and when she was.

So now the program has to look elsewhere to find its heart and soul. Will it be Driver? Or Ayers? Or someone else? 

That question will answer itself this summer and fall as the team goes through the offseason and preseason. 

But the good part is there are plenty of places to look for that answer.

In fact, don’t be shocked if we see USJ-Goodpasture matchups in Cookeville regularly for the next three years because their top player, La’zavonia Hawkins is also a freshman and will be a fun matchup to watch against Ayers similar to watching past matchups like Johnson-Bird, Shaq-Olajuwon or Lebron-Kobe.

Honestly, I’d be glad to see Goodpasture on the schedule before Christmas if the Lady Bruins were to want to get tested before district.

Of course, all of this is also considering that the TSSAA Board of Control approved Webb School of Bell Buckle’s request to move back down to D2-A last week after they requested last summer to move up to AA after they’d won three straight state championships and are a board school.

They went 15-10 this past year and made it to the state semifinals, and now they’re moving down.

So there are two definitive challenges to USJ’s stance as queens of the mountain. But fortunately for them, it appears they’ve got the firepower to compete to stay at the top for at least three more years.

Brandon Shields is the managing editor of The Jackson Post. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @JSEditorBrandon or Instagram @Editorbrandon.

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