It’s in Zach Jackson’s personality to stray from being the center of attention, to be off to the side where he can stay quiet and observe.
But the one thing that trumps the East’s junior low-key nature is his passion for winning.
And when the Blue Aces’ undefeated record was in jeopardy by Maize on Friday night in the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions, Jackson used the basketball floor as his stage to express the competitiveness he keeps bottled inside.
Jackson scored the decisive basket, completing a 3-point play, then drew a charge on the other end to allow East to survive, 52-48, against Maize. The Blue Aces will now face another unbeaten, Hays, in the championship game on Saturday night.
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“I just hate losing,” Jackson said. “What you see on the court is just my competitiveness. If we need a play and no one’s made it, then I’ll make it.”
Jackson’s laid-back nature may be his forte off the court, but he was anything but that when the Eagles made a 7-1 run to tie the score at 38 midway through the fourth quarter.
That’s when Jackson took charge, immediately attacking the basket and drawing the foul while finishing the play. The next possession, Jackson was there for the game’s biggest defensive play in drawing the charge.
East made 15 of its 18 free throws in the second half to preserve its lead after that.
“He’s pretty quiet, but when it comes to basketball he takes it very seriously,” teammate Tyas Martin said.
While Samajae Jones (15 points, 6 rebounds) and Martin (11 points) did most of the work making free throws down the stretch, it was Jackson that coach Joe Jackson trusted to find them on the in-bounds play.
Jackson finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds and no turnovers in 30 minutes.
“There have been several times this year where Zach has put us on his back and he didn’t let us lose,” Joe Jackson said. “It’s always a team effort, but there’s no doubting that Zach does tremendous things for us.”
Those tremendous plays were a requirement after East failed to deliver a finishing blow in the first three quarters on a pesky Maize squad.
When the Blue Aces took double-digit leads on three separate occasions, Maize showed its resiliency by responding with a run of its own to keep the lead manageable.
“We’re rabid,” Maize coach Chris Davis said. “We’re not going away. That’s not in our nature.”
Maize’s most impressive stretch came in the second quarter, when it held East without a field goal for the first seven minutes and tied the score at 16 before a late rally gave the Blue Aces the lead back, 21-16.
Despite being out-rebounded 36-17, Maize tied the game in the fourth quarter when Aaron Shaw (11 points) scored to knot the score at 38 with two minutes remaining.
But that’s when Jackson took over to end Maize’s chance once and for all.
“We had unbelievable fortitude,” Davis said. “We got punked in the first half on the glass, and that just can’t happen. I told our kids that the first shot wasn’t going to be the one that beat us, it was going to be the second and third shots, and I think that held true.”
Hutchinson 45, Heights 43 — After rising to the No. 5 ranking in Class 5A with an 8-1 record and a scoring average of better than 63 points, Heights lost its second game in Dodge City and once again failed to break 46 points.
“We are in a funk; it happens,” Heights coach Joe Auer said. “We’ll be fine. I’ve been around long enough to know we are having a heck of a time scoring the ball. It will go away.”
For the second straight game, the opponent zoned Heights up and had tremendous success. Against Hutchinson’s compacted 2-3 zone, Heights shot 25 percent on two-pointers and 18.2 percent from the free-throw line in the second half.
Meanwhile, Heights squandered a second straight strong defensive outing. Hutchinson survived on offense long enough, thanks to Kalen Hilst’s four three-pointers and 18 points off the bench, to set itself up for a winning look.
After Heights tied the score at 43 with 52 seconds left, Hutchinson ran off more than 40 seconds of clock and executed a play that freed Ryan Stoecklien up for the winning basket, an open lay-in, with nine seconds left.
Heights’ Semaj Hervey (13 points) was fouled with 1.3 seconds left, but missed the first free throw.
Hutchinson will play Leavenworth for fifth place on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., while Heights will face yet another zone team in Dodge City for seventh on Saturday at 1.
East 52, Maize 48
EAST: Jones 4 4-4 15, Martin 2 7-9 11, Jackson 4 4-5 13, McGaiarty 1 0-0 2, Kelly 5 1-4 11, Mutazammil 0 0-0 0, Champion 0 0-0 0, Caw 0 0-0 0, Fralin 0 0-0 0.
MAIZE: Horsch 3 0-00 7, Wilcox 1 1-2 4, Jobe 1 1-4 3, Shaw 4 2-5 11, Lungwitz 6 0-1 12, Johnson 3 1-2 8, Eleeson 1 0-0 3, Engler 0 0-0 0.
Hutchinson 45, Heights 43
HEIGHTS: Hervey 5 0-2 13, Johnson 1 0-2 2, Bell 2 2-6 6, Gill 5 1-1 11, Ellis 0 0-0 0, King 1 2-3 4, Wilbeck 2 0-2 4, Lowe 1 0-0 3.
HUTCHINSON: Wells 4 0-0 10, Arnold 4 0-0 9, Webster 0 0-0 0, Stoecklien 1 0-0 2, Parra 3 0-0 6, Hilst 6 2-2 18, Tolbert 0 0-0 0, Faucett 0 0-0 0, Norman 0 0-0 0.