KINGMAN - Justice Jackson lay ill in a hospital bed, going through rounds of dialysis and transfusions while battling a life-threatening sickness, and his No. 1 concern was getting better so he could play with the Kingman Academy of Learning 8th-grade boys basketball team at the Kingman Middle School Tournament Feb. 26.
"We have a teammate who is severely sick, and the only thing on his mind was how he was letting his team down," KAHS coach Michael Perrine said. "We had to tell he wasn't, and that he needed to just focus on getting better. As a team, we decided that we were going to play the rest of the season for Justice."
Justice became ill Feb. 8 and is hospitalized at Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas. His team decided to show what it meant to play for a teammate.
KAOL (11-3) faced Bullhead City in its final regular-season game and cruised past the Bulldogs, 51-31. The win set up the Coyotes for a run through the KMS tournament.
Before opening the tournament, KAOL lost two other players for the tournament and made some call-ups from the 7th-grade team. The Coyotes faced Mohave Valley in the opening round and found themselves trailing by nine late in the game. KAOL regrouped and pulled out a come-from-behind win, 59-51.
In the semifinals, KAOL faced Bullhead Fox Creek, which had beaten the Coyotes Feb. 8, 44-39. KAOL held a slim 11-8 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Fox Creek poured it on in the second for a 24-15 lead at the half.
The two teams slugged it out in the third, but the Coyotes didn't put much of a dent into Fox Creek's lead, trailing 39-31. A 21-point fourth quarter sparked by the defense propelled KAOL to a 52-41 win, and a berth into the tournament finals.
"We finished every huddle with '1-2-3 Justice!' so that we always knew what we were there to do," Perrine said. "The boys played their hearts out."
KAOL faced Lake Havasu City Thunderbolt in the championship, a team that blew the Coyotes out previously, 50-31.
"They beat us when we had a full team," Perrine said. "We knew we were going to have to dig deep and find the desire if we wanted to win this game."
Exhaustion appeared to have caught up with the Coyotes due to their having to come from behind in the previous two games. Thunderbolt raced out to a 15-6 first-quarter lead and held on to the nine-point advantage at the half, 31-22.
The Coyotes' defense picked it up in the third, but Thunderbolt actually increased its lead to 10, 43-33.
"In the fourth quarter, the boys reached deep inside themselves and came out firing on all cylinders," Perrine said.
KAOL outscored Thunderbolt 17-7 in the fourth to tie the game 50-50 and force overtime. The magic ended after that for KAOL, as Thunderbolt took the championship with a 58-54 win.
"This was the best team-oriented basketball I had seen all season," the coach said. "All the boys played their hearts out and left it all on the court. It was truly my pleasure coaching this group of young men this year."