Smyrna's Diamond State Stars went into the AAU National Tournament two weeks ago not only playing against older players but five players down. The Stars didn't let the adversity faze them one bit as they walked away with a first place trophy in the Division II 16-and-under 10th grade portion of the tournament.
The tournament started on July 10 in Florida with the championship games capping off the week on July 16.
With two sophomores, the team consists of majority freshmen from Smyrna High School.
Team coordinator Charlie Taylor said they expected the team to play hard and let the chips fall as they may but the players had a different attitude.
"At the time they were used to having so many players they would ask for help and take themselves out but [at nationals] there was none of that. The players stepped up and never looked at the bench. They kept playing," Taylor said. "I'm most proud of that…they never gave up."
Losing in pool play
The national tournament starts out in pool play with the 88 teams split up into groups of four. The top two teams from each pool go into the Championship Bracket while the bottom two teams go into the Classic Bracket. The Stars went 1-2 in pool play, which put them in the Classic Bracket.
Taylor said the players were nervous in the first game and didn't play well at all even though they played a team they could beat nine out of 10 times. Head coach Deondre Taylor said the players weren't too upset losing in pool play and entered the Classic Bracket with the mentality they were going to leave with a trophy.
"There was a statement made, 'We're here. We might as well win it and they did,'" Taylor said.
Bouncing back for a trophy
The Stars went 5-0 in the Classic Bracket, finishing in first place.
Deondre said the key to their wins was their defense; the players were never rattled under pressure.
"In our close scoring games, we didn't lose one close game," Deondre said. "We won them on last second shots, free throws, game winning baskets and then getting a defensive rebound. Any possible way to win at the end of a game we did."
Aaron Scott had two game-winning shots. Latrelle Lee had a buzzer beating three-pointer. Donte Ritchie had two clutch free throws to win the championship game. The championship game, a 64-60 win over the Broward Storm, was won with just six players – two teammates had to leave early – after playing earlier in the day to get to the championship.
Players Isaiah Mowbray and Dominique Walker both said it felt good to finish in first place.
"It felt good to go down there and win something we didn't expect to win," Walker said.
When dealing with adversity throughout the tournament, they said the team had to fight through it.
"We stuck together and hung in there," Mowbray said.
Since the Stars finished in first place in the Classic Bracket, they were ranked 15th out of the 88 teams that participated. Winning the tournament also automatically qualifies them for next year's tournament.
Taylor pointed to Deondre as a key part of the victory.
"Before one tire was on the road, he [Deondre] was the only one in the group that said, 'We're going to Florida to win a trophy,'" Taylor said. "And he was consistent about that from the day we left to us winning."
Email Jennifer Dailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.