Last season, it seemed like the Pine Bluff Zebras and the Jacksonville Titans couldn't get out of each other's way as they met on three different occasions.
The Titans swept the Zebras, and according to Zebras Head Coach Billy Dixon, they altered their season. The last of those three matchups was in the conference tournament where playoff positioning was on the line.
"For us, it's not different than any other game," Dixon said. "They had our number last year as they beat us three times. Those three losses really hampered us in a lot of ways. We lost a lot of basketball respect in the fact that it was three games. They just found a way to get it done each time. It's one of the few teams we haven't beaten in a while, and we need to change that."
The Zebras will get their shot at the Titans tonight at home in what will be there third non-conference game against quality programs. Jacksonville Head Coach Victor Joyner has been a mainstay in their program, and Dixon expects his players to play hard for him like they always have.
"One of the things we know with Joiner is the kids will play hard for him," Dixon said. "They'll be well coached and they've built a nice structure. They're young and they may even play some ninth graders, but they're talented. They'll be ready to play and everybody gets up for Pine Bluff. It means something to come in here and walk out with a win."
Dixon has spoken out about the inexperience of his own team as they're working with a number of guys who hadn't logged the playing minutes in the past. However, the Zebras have pulled out two impressive victories to start the season.
Over the weekend, the Zebras competed in the North Little Rock Classic. In their one game, the Zebras matched up with Conway and came away victorious by a final of 60-58. Free throws had been a struggle for the Zebras heading into the game. The Zebras turned that around by knocking down 17-18 second-half foul shots in route to their close win.
"The good thing is we learned is that they're slowly growing up, Dixon said. "We played with a lot of poise, we still made mistakes, but we played hard. We would go up and all of a sudden they would come back and it's a tied ball game. We don't know how to run off with a game just yet and that will come with experience. We were fortunate that we made our free throws when it counted. In the second half, we were 17-18 and it made a difference. We haven't been a good free throw shooting team and we were simply better in that area."
It also helped that the Zebras got senior guard Kendrick Thorn Jr. back from a leg injury that caused him to miss three weeks. Thorn came off of the bench to lead the Zebras in scoring with 21 points. Senior center Kazaron Washington had a breakout performance in his first career start, and junior point guard Kaleb Higgins has shown steady growth.
"Kazaron Washington did an excellent job for us on the boards," Dixon said. "He had nine points and 12 rebounds, but it felt like he scored more and had more boards. Thorn came in and scored 22 points after missing three weeks. For him to be off that long, you have to appreciate what he brought. Thorn had a leg injury, and he only participated in two practices prior to the game. He didn't start, and he came off the bench and did an excellent job. Higgins played well and he hit two three-pointers in a crucial part of the game. He's still growing and starting to be a bigger factor for us. He's growing and maturing into that spot."
With his guys being overall inexperienced, Dixon was questioned on how important it is to keep them grounded after a couple of early non-conference wins. According to Dixon, taking down Conway was huge for them going forward, and he saw something from his guys that he hadn't seen yet.
"It's two dynamics that you want to happen," Dixon said. "We had a blowout in the first game, and it elevates their mindset. Then you come back and you have another game where at the beginning of the fourth you're down by eight. I watched our guys come together and huddle on the free throw line at that time, and that's something that hadn't happened. We ended up pulling out the win, and afterwards, I acknowledged that moment when they huddled and gathered themselves. The Conway win was a good win for us. They were stronger and bigger across the board. They averaged from 6'2-6'7, and for our guys to go into that adversity, dig in, and find a way to win that's a plus."
Pine Bluff will look for their third win tonight as Jacksonville comes to town. The Zebras and Titans are set for a 7 p.m. tip off.