HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State men's basketball sophomore guard Jestin Lewis sat at Tom Drake Coliseum last March and watched Shelton State cut down the nets after winning a state championship.
Lewis and fellow sophomore Marcus Johnson vowed to Wallace State coach John Meeks the Lions weren't going to allow that to happen again on their home court.
That promise has been fulfilled. Top-seeded Wallace State cut down the nets Saturday night at home after an impressive 77-67 victory over rival Shelton State in the 2014 Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 tournament title game, capturing the program's second state championship in the last three seasons under Meeks and the third in five seasons.
"It broke my heart last season to see Shelton State cutting down those nets. To be able to win the championship against them this year means so much to me," said Lewis, a Virginia native. "We promised coach Meeks we were going to win it this year and we backed it up. We dedicated ourselves the entire season. We've put in a lot of hard work and it's all paid off."
Lewis definitely kept his end of the bargain up. He started the title game on fire, scoring the first 11 points for Wallace State. He had 19 points by the half and finished with 31 points, tying a career-high he established against Shelton State earlier this season. Lewis, a Mercer commitment, also finished with seven rebounds and four steals.
"Jestin Lewis and Marcus Johnson walked on this court last year and told me this season was going to be ours. I challenged them every day to live up to that promise and they did. I couldn't be more proud of our entire team. We had high expectations all season and lived up to them," Meeks said. "Jestin Lewis especially showed a lot of leadership in this game. He huddled guys up and did a great job with things beyond the stat sheet this week. He was the first one in the gym this week and the last to leave."
With Friday's semifinal win against Lawson State, Wallace State (27-6) had already assured itself a berth in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I national tournament, beginning March 17 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The Lions weren't satisfied with that. They had one more thing on their mind.
"Our guys never talked about going to Hutch last night (Friday). It was all Shelton State all the time. They talked about winning this game and they did," said Meeks, who led Wallace State to its second national tournament berth in 2010 during his second season in Hanceville.
Despite a handful of injuries and adversity over the last two weeks of the regular season, the Lions entered the tournament as the North's Division top seed and as the hunted team after earning the regular-season championship.
Wallace State was ready for every challenge this week.
"It's been tougher the last three days to win. Each team was coming after us because we were the best team during the regular season and we were on our home court," said Wallace State forward Marcus Burwell, who finished with 10 points, including a pair of clutch 3's late in the game.
Added Lewis: "We are a family. We are brothers. We feel like we've been together for four years instead of one. We always knew we could win a ring together, so no challenge was too much for us. We knew if we played our game and stuck together, we could win this championship."
Lewis sparked Wallace State's fast start in Saturday's title game with 11 consecutive points, giving the Lions an early 11-5 advantage. Lee Moore's 3-pointer with 13:04 left in the half then extended Wallace State's lead to 20-13.
The Lions built as much as an 11-point lead in the first half before Shelton State chipped away and cut the Wallace State margin to 40-36 at the half.
The long-time rivals traded leads four times during the opening four minutes of the second half and were tied at 46-46 with 14:28 to go after Shelton State's Albert Lynch III hit a 3-pointer from the left corner.
Wallace State regained control on an X-keem Jones putback, making it 48-46 with 14:01 remaining. Minutes later, Burwell, a sophomore transfer, nailed a pair of huge 3's on consecutive possessions for Wallace State, extending its cushion to 61-51 with 7:35 left.
Wallace State never relinquished the lead, but Shelton State didn't make it easy either. The Bucs cut their deficit to two, at 69-67, with 54.1 seconds remaining, but Wallace State answered with an 8-0 run to secure the championship, getting clutch free throws from three different players.
Burwell's second-half 3's were a huge boost for the Lions.
"Marcus wasn't playing well in the first half, but we knew we had to get something out of his position. He's a gamer and does a lot of things that don't show up in the box score. He played some big-time minutes for us," Meeks said. "All of our guys stepped up when they had too. We've been in the same spot all season. We knew Shelton State had a run left. We made plays and answered when we needed too."
Burwell was thrilled to answer the call.
"I knew I had to step up because the game was getting close. I knew I could make those shots. I knew if we could get a double-digit lead, we would be in good shape. I just shot them with confidence," Burwell said. "To contribute to this championship is like a dream come true. This has been our goal from the beginning. We've prepared for this since October and now we get to go Hutch and try to win that."
Moore was named the tournament MVP after pouring in 19 points versus Shelton State. The freshman guard from Kennesaw, Ga. finished with 53 points over three tournament games.
Lewis, Burwell and Johnson joined Moore on the all-tournament team.
During its long history, Wallace State basketball had never won a state championship until the 2009-10 season. Meeks, 30, led the Lions to a second state title and national tournament appearance in 2012 after his team won four games in four days as an underdog and a No. 6 seed. This championship was much different. The regular season, which included a 14-game winning streak, was an incredible ride and the heavily-favored Lions played with high energy and poise during their three-game tournament run.
"Our guys responded night in and night out. No one counted us out this time. For us to get the No. 1 seed with all the adversity we faced and to play with only eight guys for two weeks is a true testament to the will and character of our guys," Meeks said.
Wallace State's best finish at the national tournament was 5th place in 2010.
"It's tougher in junior college basketball to make a national tournament than at any other level. We have two prizes right now. We have the prize that represents the entire body of work we accomplished during the regular season, and we have one that represents the grind we've been through the last three days. The team laid it all out on the line and did whatever it could to win," Meeks said. "To own both prizes is a lot of fun. We can look forward to chasing a third prize in a couple of weeks."