By Josh Troy
    Clarksdale Advocate

    Coahoma County High School won its fifth Class 2A MHSAA boys basketball state championship in seven seasons, but the run of titles may be far from finished. The Red Panthers (30-2, 10-0) won the 2022-23 championship by defeating Northside 67-34 at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson on Friday. After losing to Pine Grove in the 2022 playoffs, Coahoma County coach Derrick Moore had one goal in mind for this past season. “Championship or bust,” he said. “We still have posters of a guy from Pine Grove looking at us, and we had to get that off.”

    The Red Panthers finished the 2022-23 season on a 30-game winning streak to get back on top with a championship. Coahoma County won two back-to-back championships during the past seven seasons, first in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and then in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Moore has won seven titles as a Red Panthers coach. The past five came as the head coach, and the other two were in 2004-05 and 2005-06 as an assistant to Isaiah Peterson. But Moore has never won three consecutive championships and has his sights set on making the 2022-23 title the beginning of at least a “threepeat.”

    “We’re capable,” he said. “But we’ve just got to keep working. I know none of this is possible without God, and I know I’m blessed.” Junior point guard Harlem Bell, who won the scholar athlete award before the game, and scored 8 points while adding 5 assists against Northside, also believes there are more championships in the Red Panthers’ future. Bell wants to continue what his brother, senior shooting guard Cam’ron Bell, helped build.

    “It means a lot knowing that he’s going off to college,” said Harlem Bell about winning the 2022-23 championship. “I’ve got to hold it down for him next year. Me and my guys are going to hold it down next year for all the seniors.” Cam’ron Bell was the championship game MVP finishing with 23 points, four 3-pointers, 2 steals, 2 assists, and 3 rebounds. He wanted to leave the program on a high note for the younger athletes to build on next season.

    “This game right here, it was very personal to me,” he said. “It was the last game of my senior year, so I wanted to go out with a bang. “I’m very excited for my team to pull out a state championship and gold ball, especially for the senior guys knowing it was our last game.” All four of Cam’ron Bell’s 3-pointers came during the first half as the Red Panthers took a 29-13 halftime lead. He connected on two 3-pointers in the first quarter as his team jumped out to a 21-7 lead.

    “It was very important,” Cam’ron Bell said. “It got my team momentum.” Coahoma County scored 13 points unanswered in the final 3:26 of the first quarter to extend an 8-7 lead to 21-7 going into the second quarter.
    Cam’ron Bell got the 13-0 run going with a 3-pointer. He appreciated being named the championship game MVP. “It means a lot,” he said. “I set a goal to get the MVP in the state championship game.”

    Cam’ron Bell had been in a slump but got things going when Coahoma County beat Choctaw County in the playoffs 52-31. He scored the team’s first 11 points against Choctaw County on three, 3-pointers, and a 2-point field goal. He finished that game with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Cam’ron Bell had a similar game in the championship against Northside in route to being the MVP.

    “It’s about time,” Moore said. “He’s been struggling for a while. We put that pressure on him yesterday. We told him every time we come down here, one of our shooters will score, then cut up. I said, man, you’ve been broke like three or four games. You haven’t shown anything for the coaches. (He said), ‘I’m going out with a bang my senior year.’”

    Cam’ron Bell could not have been happier with how things turned out. “I’m very excited right now,” he said. Sophomore center Hershel Washington finished with 10 points and hopes to close his high school career with a “threepeat.” “We’re going to be back again,” he said. Fifteen of the Red Panthers’ 21 first quarter points came on five-pointers with three pointers. Washington scored the other 6 points of the period, creating opportunities for his teammates on the outside.

    “If they double team me, they aren’t going to have any trouble when I pass it out,” he said. Washington talked about his desire to have a strong inside presence and create opportunities for his teammates behind the 3-point line. “I just wanted it more than the other team,” he said. The Red Panthers finished the championship with nine 3-pointers. Cam’ron Bell connected on four 3-pointers, senior wing Demarjay Rucker had two, senior wing Deandre Rucker also had two, and Harlem Bell had one.

    While the Red Panthers were on fire from the outside in the championship, they found different ways to win each playoff game. Coahoma County won their first two playoff games by a combined 47 points, beating New Site 60-34 and Choctaw County 52-31. The Red Panthers won a defensive battle in the quarterfinals beating Baldwyn 28-27. They overcame an early 7-0 deficit in the semifinals to beat Newton 45-32.

    Moore said there has been one common denominator in each of the games. “When you don’t allow scoring to win games, it’s OK,” he said. “We don’t care how we win the games. We rely on, and I’ll tell you again, defense, rebounding, and ball control. If we do that, we’re going. We don’t care about how we score and all that.” Before the championship game, Moore said he was glad the Red Panthers were playing the Gators. Northside is in Shelby, just 30 minutes from Clarksdale, and Moore said he wanted the champions to come from the Delta.

    However, Moore’s main focus was for the Red Panthers to win in their “championship or bust” season. Coahoma County had beaten Northside in their three previous meetings. The Red Panthers won 53-30 at Northside on Jan. 13, 56-45 at home on Feb. 4, and 54-47 in the Region 3-2A District Tournament Championship at Riverside on Feb. 10.

    Moore was not worried his team would be overconfident in the championship. “No such thing,” he said. “We may have beaten them, but this is the championship game. We had not beaten them in the championship game, so, no, no such thing as overconfidence. We want a championship and no such thing.”

    Harlem Bell reflected on winning the scholar athlete award and playing an integral role in the championship. “It feels good, doing good on the court and in school,” he said. Harlem Bell said he does not know his current GPA, as his main focus is performing well in the classroom. “I don’t even know,” he said. “I just know I’m doing well in school, and I keep up the grades.” Harlem Bell has a routine to ensure he completes all his work and is ready to play on the basketball court. “I go home and study at night knowing that practice is draining,” he said. “I’ve still got to put the work in and study, keep up my grades.”

    Demarjay Rucker finished the championship game with 8 points for Coahoma County; senior power forward Kesean Maddox had 3 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal; sophomore power forward Jeremy Qualls had 2 points; Deandre Rucker had 6 points; junior wing Jerasmus Eagins finished with 6 points; freshman small forward Caleb Hearn had 2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal; and sophomore power forward Zechariah Smith added 2 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists.


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