Jackson, Hornets found winning formula
It became a familiar refrain late in the regular season and in the postseason for Aiken High boys’ basketball coach Darris Jackson – the Hornets just kept finding ways to win.
That didn’t happen by accident.
A keen eye for detail and meticulous preparation, coupled with the players’ growth and maturity, ensured that the Hornets wouldn’t end up in situations late in games where they didn’t know what to do. That allowed Aiken to extend an already-successful season in which the Hornets went undefeated in Region 4-AAAA play and made a deep playoff run. For those reasons, Jackson was voted the Aiken Standard Boys’ Basketball Coach of the Year.
“We got in situations where it looks like we might not win this one,” he said. “When we could call a timeout, I could tell in everybody’s eyes that we felt like we were going to do something to win the game. If we were down 10 or down whatever, we felt like in every game we play there’s nothing that’s too great for us to overcome.”
The Hornets’ combination of preparation, attitude and skill led to a 23-5 record and a No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA playoffs – their first top seed since the 2003-04 season. Aiken was a block at the buzzer away from extending its season and earning a trip to the Upper State title game just one year after sneaking into the Class AAA postseason as a No. 4 seed.
“It was real special,” said Jackson, whose team started the season 7-4 but felt as a group that they could be better. “I think at that point, we just came together, and we didn’t worry about so much of the individual things, like ‘Who gets to shoot now?’ and ‘What role do I have?’ All the kids just decided ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team win’.
“I think the light kind of came on for us. The kids bought in; they embraced each other, they embraced their roles and decided ‘We want to win, and whatever it takes to do that, we’ll do it.’”
Aiken won 16 games in a row after that 7-4 start, including a clean sweep through region play. Some of the first wins of the streak came at the Bennie Bennett Holiday Classic, a tournament that held a special meaning for Jackson.
“Firstly, Bennie Bennett was a mentor of mine. I’ve known him since I was 5 or 6 years old. My dad worked for Bennie Bennett; he was on Bennie Bennett’s coaching staff,” Jackson said. “Going up there and getting that one was – I told my kids that was a personal deal for me. And it was a chance for us to win a championship. We talked about, before that tournament, you only get so many chances to win any kind of a championship. So any time you’re playing for a trophy, you’ve got to lay it all out there.”
That tournament title was a big-time turning point for the Hornets, giving them confidence in addition to a glimpse of how good they could be.
Eight different players led Aiken in scoring this season, and four Hornets were named to the All-Region team. Devon Young earned league Player of the Year honors, and Jackson said he brought a level of toughness to the team and gave the Hornets an edge.
These players who starred for the Hornets this year and made big contributions, Jackson said, were the ones who bought in, were willing to do the little things and put in the work to develop their skills. He credited assistant coaches Tim Simpkins and Russell Felton in helping to identify the types of players who wanted to do it the right way, something that didn’t work immediately for Aiken.
It certainly worked this past season, and it allowed Aiken to reign supreme in a highly-competitive region full of competitive programs. The Hornets prioritized protecting home court after winning just three games on their own floor last year – this year, they didn’t a lose a game played at the James A. Taylor Activities Center. In the process, Aiken exacted revenge against its rivals and positioned itself squarely at the top of the area’s basketball programs.
“We were able to beat everybody that beat us the year before,” Jackson said. “I think our kids, we went into games like, ‘All right, these guys got us last year. We’ve got to get them back.’ So our kids brought it.”