For years, the Pine Bluff Zebras have hosted their annual Christmas holiday basketball event, whether it’s been tournament-style or round-robin.
Just as in holidays past, the 2017 Zebras Christmas Classic — set for today through Friday — is shaping up as “three nights of good basketball,” according to Pine Bluff Head Coach Billy Dixon.
The four-team pool includes Clarendon, McGehee, Little Rock Central and Pine Bluff. Each team will face-off against each other once. Tonight, the Zebras play McGehee; on Thursday, they play Clarendon, and on Friday, the Zebras face Little Rock Central.
All three of Pine Bluff’s games will begin at 7 p.m., with the other games beginning at 5:30 p.m.
“I think it ought to be three exciting nights of basketball,” Dixon said. “McGehee is coming in with a 9-1 record, so they’re having success. They’re always well coached, and we look for a challenge from them. Clarendon traditionally plays in this thing every year, and they’ve actually won it a couple times here lately. They bring a nice crowd. The third team is Little Rock Central, and we played them a couple of Saturdays ago. They have a lot of size on the inside, and they were playing without a few of their players. They had us down 31-6 before we got ourselves going to lose by two. The match-ups should be good. For us, we need it as far as actual playing time.”
The Zebras haven’t played since that last outing against LR Central, so they have plenty of practice time. Although practicing is good, there’s no way to simulate actual game speed, so Dixon is ready to get back at it.
“The practice time was good for us,” Dixon said. “I think we needed it, even though we would rather be playing a game. We were able to get some of our guys caught up to speed. That time was much needed with the inexperience we have and to get the guys on the same page.”
Thus far, it’s been a season of ups and downs for the Zebras. They got off to a hot 4-0 start, but have now lost three out of their last four. Starting slow has been a problem for the Zebras in their losses.
“It’s been a tough process,” Dixon said. “Early on we did by grinding it out, and we were determined to fight to the bitter end. The problem occurring now is that we come out slow. Physically, they’re ready to play, but mentally, they’re not locked in. It’s been up and down, and that’s when the execution goes away. I thought the past week or so of practice has gave us a chance to close the gap in some areas.”
Trying to win three games on consecutive nights will be a tall task for the Zebras, but it’s something they’re embracing.
“These next few days will be very important for us, and we’re still not where we want to be,” Dixon said. “Hopefully, going into the conference season, this is a good time to have three games back to back and to grind it out.”
Junior point guard Kaleb Higgins is growing as the leader of the team from his position. Jyrimee Thompson has been a solid addition from the football team, and Dixon believes D.J. Martin is on the cusp of having a breakout performance.
One of the most important guys on the h , senior Kendrick Thorn, has been dealing with injuries and sickness, and right now they just plan to bring him along slowly.
“We look for Higgins to continue to lead at the point,” Dixon said. “What we’re trying to push him on is the defensive end of the floor. Jyrimee Thompson can be a force on both ends of the court, and I expect him to show up for us over the next three days. D.J. Martin has put the work in, and he’s a guy where I’m waiting to have a breakout game. On any given night we have guys that can step up. Thorn has been out with injuries and being sick so we’re treating him with caution day-to-day.”
Basketball in McFadden Gymnasium during the Christmas Break is a staple in the community, and the Zebras are ready to get after it.
“The kids are excited about it and looking forward to it,” Dixon said. “Hopefully we have a good turn out and good showing.”
First tip-off is set for 5:30 p.m. today between Little Rock Central and Clarendon. Pine Bluff will play against McGehee at 7 p.m.