Murray, Lady Mustangs dismiss doubts, finally ride to the Promised Land
As the last seconds wound from the clock last season, the Promised Land remained just out of reach. From their vantage point, the West Jones Lady Mustangs could see it, but they were not able to seize the elusive dream.
This time, it was Neshoba Central, a powerful team that went on to finish the 2022 season undefeated as Class 5A state champion. Despite a furious 10-0 fourth quarter run, the Lady Mustangs fell short, 60-57. So close. Again. Another final loss of the season in the Big House in Jackson, where the last team standing is crowned a champion.
It was a painfully familiar feeling. In three previous trips to the state tournament — 2015, 2018 and 2019 — the Lady Mustangs fell just short, losing the championship game. All heartbreaks.
Head coach Sharon P. Murray might have wondered if she was the right coach to lead the Lady Mustangs to the land flowing with gold balls and championship rings.
Murray’s memory from that night a year earlier?
“I saw the hurt in their eyes,” she recalled. “They were very emotional.”
She was too, no doubt.
Fast forward one year and two days later to last Friday night. The self-proclaimed “sisterhood” from Soso was back at the Big House again. Unfinished business. Time to part the sea of championship futility and claim the prize. And this time, they would not be denied.
The first thing they wanted to do last year after losing the semifinal game was to review the film of the game. Before the tears were dry, this sisterhood wanted to see where they had stumbled, what they needed to do to improve, how they could become stronger and better.
The hurt didn’t fade easily, Murray recalled.
“The next day everyone was still hurt,” she said. “And even though we didn’t finish, I saw the hunger to come back in them.”
That was no surprise. That work ethic had long been a part of this team, as the six seniors had been teammates since the seventh grade and grew up together in the community.
Murray credits the parents and families for instilling that work ethic, not only in this class of champions, but in all of the kids who have come through her program since taking the helm in 2011.
“We are not having to go after kids ... I am not recruiting,” she said. “We are winning with the kids that are growing up here in Hebron and Shady Grove and Calhoun and this area.”
In basketball, work ethic is often measured by the effort that is given to defense. Sure, it might be more fun to run up and down the court and jack up 3’s. But the best teams are the ones that are dedicated to playing defense and getting stops. So it comes as no surprise that this Lady Mustangs team is described by Murray as “the best defensive team I have ever coached, hands down.”
In their four playoff games, the Lady Mustangs smothered their opponents with defense, holding elite teams to an average of just 31 points per game. In fact, Callaway could muster only 31 points in the championship game, shooting a measly 16.7 percent from the field and failing to tally more than nine points in any quarter as the Lady Mustangs prevailed, 53-31.
“Our defense gives ourselves a chance to succeed, and we just get after it,” Murray explained.
Senior Azlyn Dawson is credited as “the one that gets us going on defense,” Murray said. “She is all about it and sparks our team.” Lightning in a bottle.
Another thing that helped get this team to the Promised Land was its unselfish play and poise.
“You can have great players on a team, the individual pieces, but if the mentality of the team is not focused on the same goal, you can’t go farther,” Murray said. “If you are only thinking of yourself instead of the team … that won’t work.”
Every eligible returning player from last year was back on the roster this season. The practices were moved to 7:15 in the morning, not at the request of the coaches, but that of the players. When most kids are trying to negotiate a few more minutes of sleep before school, these girls were up and at it early each morning. Why? Because that was best for the sisterhood. It was all about the team, not the individuals.
Every one of the six seniors on the championship team will have opportunities to further their educations. Lindsey Cole has been offered a full academic scholarship to Ole Miss. Azlyn Dawson has already signed a soccer scholarship with Mississippi Gulf Coast. C’Shanti Pierce is weighing opportunities to sign a track scholarship. The other three seniors — Aasia Wilson, Jayden Carr and Halei Keyes — have offers on the table to play college basketball.
“That is the expectation for my kids,” Murray said. “I want to lead them and impact them in a positive way.”
The 2023 edition of the Lady Mustangs had all of the right stuff to get back to the grand stage once again: Determination, grit, work ethic and, most important, the sisterhood.
Prior to the final game last week, Murray exited the familiar locker room at the Big House for yet another try to take her sisterhood to the top. But when she did, she quickly realized that she was a coach seemingly without a team.
Her team was so ready to erase the bitter memories of a year ago on this same floor that they had already run out onto the court and were ready to get the game started. She laughed as she recalled looking up to see that.
“I came out and looked around and they were gone!” Murray said.
They couldn’t wait any longer or hold back. It was their time to shine.
The other memory Murray shared of that pregame was the sight of her girls circling around together, unprompted, to pray together at center court.
It was at this point that all previous doubts and questions were dismissed once and for all. Murray proved she is the right coach to lead this team. And her impact goes far beyond the final buzzer and the raising of the gold ball high into the air. The memories and lessons will last a lifetime.
Posted on the door to the Lady Mustangs’ locker room is a simple but powerful declaration of life. Each player walks past this reminder every time they enter their locker room: “Winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit.”
As the 2023 state champions, the West Jones Lady Mustangs are a living testament to that axiom. And life in the Promised Land is oh so sweet.
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