Zebras eye King Cotton classic trophy

One year ago, a buzzer-beater denied Pine Bluff a first-ever championship in its hometown high school basketball showcase, the King Cotton Holiday Classic.

The Zebras are back with eyes on finally winning the tournament, which will be held Wednesday through Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

Head Coach Billy Dixon said the Zebras are excited to be back in King Cotton this year.

“For us, the kids get a chance to compete on a national level,” Dixon said. “Not just as a team, but they get to compete individually against top players, and they get a chance to make that assessment of themselves as a player, give you an opportunity to see what you need to work on. Every kid wants to get to the next level, so what better way of getting an assessment of playing guys that’s being recruited by Power Five schools and a year or so away from being in the league?” Last year, Pine Bluff (8-2) took down Fort Bend Elkins (Missouri City, Texas) and McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) to reach the King Bracket championship game against Beaumont (Texas) United. Jordon Harris made a free throw with 19.1 seconds remaining to give Pine Bluff a 52-51 lead.

United, which had lost in the championship game the year prior to North Little Rock, stole the trophy from the Zebras with a buzzer-beating jumper by Wesley Yates. Harris now plays football for Missouri, while Yates plays basketball for Washington.

Courtney Crutchfield, who led the Zebras with 23 points in that game, is now a senior. He said coming so close last year motivates this year’s team to win it.

“I still feel like we got the same team,” Crutchfield said. “We probably lost a few seniors that played a big impact on our basketball team last year, but I feel like we can come back out and redo what we did last season, but this time, win it.” After falling 1 point short of winning King Cotton last year, the Zebras went on to win the Class 5A state championship. This was Pine Bluff’s fourth state title since the first King Cotton was played in 1983.

Despite all the Zebras’ success over the years, they have never won their hometown holiday classic. This will be the 22nd edition of the tournament.

Pine Bluff senior Braylen Hall said he wants to show a hometown crowd what this team can do against national competition.

“That gives us a lot of motivation, because all of our guys been through a lot growing up,” Hall said. “So, it just gives us a lot of motivation to put on for our families.” As always, this year’s King Cotton features several high-profile recruits. At least 30 blue chip recruits are expected to participate.

Sophomore forward Deriyon Graydon said the other teams’ stars don’t intimidate him.

“Me personally, I don’t like to look at all the hype,” Gray-don said. “I know they put on they shoes just like we do. So, they gotta come out there and prove it, just like we do.” Pine Bluff brings its own group of talented athletes into the tournament. Crutchfield and senior Austyn Dendy both signed with Missouri for football, though they are also talented basketball players.

Dixon said Crutchfield is at least top seven in the state. Dendy, a defensive specialist, made his season debut Friday against Watson Chapel after recovering from an ankle injury in football. Dixon called Graydon Pine Bluff ’s most improved player from last season, while Hall is a senior with two years of starting experience.

The Zebras got some reinforcement this offseason with senior Randy Emerson Jr. transferring to Pine Bluff from White Hall. Emerson has been a consistent scorer for the Zebras and said the transition has gone well for him.

“It’s been nice and fun,” Emerson said. “The guys welcomed me in very well. The coaching staff, they brought me in and taught me a lot, taught me how to be a dog.” Pine Bluff’s first game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday against Duncanville (Texas).