Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Former Zebra, Mississipp­i team eye national title

- By I.C. Murrell

Two years ago, Kaleb Higgins played his last game at Pine Bluff High School in the semifinal round of the 5A state tournament. The Zebras had just lost to Lake Hamilton by three points.

“Forty-five minutes after that game, Kaleb was still crying,” said Jason Flanigan, Higgins’ coach at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss. “I knew then that basketball and winning and losing meant a lot to him.”

It was at that moment, Flanigan said, he learned how special Higgins was — and is.

Flanigan heard about his future recruit from his father Al, the longtime Parkview coach who is now retired. Parkview and Pine Bluff were conference rivals at the time and have faced off in classic postseason battles in recent years.

“One game they were playing was at Pine Bluff, and they were scoring a lot of points,” Flanigan said. “The first call was from my dad. He told me, ‘Son, if you need a recruit, come look at this kid. We couldn’t do anything with him on the court.’ My dad doesn’t give a lot of credits like that. That’s when I started recruiting Kaleb.”

Two years after averaging 28 points per game as a Zebra, Higgins isn’t crying any tears of defeat. The 5-foot-10 sophomore guard has added to his decorated junior college career a Region XXIII championsh­ip, meaning he’s leading Holmes (15-3) into the National Junior College Athletic Associatio­n tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.

“It means a lot,” said Higgins, who is also the Mississipp­i Associatio­n of Community Colleges Conference North Division Player of the Year. “We got everybody back and everybody doing their job. Everybody is clicking right now, and hopefully we get on a run and go all the way to the championsh­ip.”

Higgins has also drawn high praise from Flanigan, a former Ole Miss standout who is taking a team to the NJCAA tournament for the third time in his 13 years at the helm.

“Kaleb and Daryl [Macon] are two best players I ever coached,” Flanigan said, the latter a former Parkview standout who starred at the University of Arkansas from 2016-18. “They make my job easy, how well they score the ball. You give them the ball and tell the other guys to get out of the way and go rebound.”

Higgins averaged 19.3 points over the four region tournament games. With the Bulldogs earning a firstround bye, Higgins scored 23 points vs. Mississipp­i Gulf Coast Community College, 18 against LSU Eunice, 26 on 11th-ranked Pearl River CC and 14 against Northeast Mississipp­i CC in the championsh­ip game.

Higgins learned of his MVP award after the Pearl River game.

“It was an exciting moment, but I was more worried about getting the ring and the championsh­ip,” he said.

In the region tournament, Higgins shot 47.5% from the floor, 50% from 3-point range and 82.3% in free throws. Those efforts helped him earn MACCC Player of the Week accolades Tuesday.

“It was very challengin­g,” Higgins said. “We had to go to Louisiana. That was like five, four hours from here. The first game was tough. There were a lot of shooters on that team.”

The last two region tournament games were played much closer to Goodman in Clinton, a suburb of Jackson.

“Third game, we played a really great team, the No. 11 team in the nation,” Higgins said. “It boosted our confidence a lot. We knew what we had to do in the last game.”

Flanigan said every basket Higgins scored was huge during the Pearl River game.

This season, Higgins is turning in 19.9 points per game. He dropped 40 against Northwest Mississipp­i Community College on Feb. 4, shooting 13 for 21 from field, 4 for 8 from 3-point range and 10 of 10 free throws. He scored 30 or more points in two other games.

Higgins has increased his scoring from about 14 points per game the season before, according to Flanigan. Plus, Higgins has taken on more of a leadership role.”

“We have better talent around him, so it makes it a little easier because they can’t just key on him,” Flanigan said.

Holmes will tip off against Vincennes University of Indiana at 2 p.m. Monday, and the winner will take on No. 2 seed Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa in the second round. The entire tournament will be held at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.

Twenty-four teams comprise the tournament, with Holmes and Vincennes seeded 18th and 15th, respective­ly. The top eight seeds need only win four games for the championsh­ip, while the ninth through 24th seeds have to win five.

Higgins has drawn offers from Troy, Alcorn State, Georgia Southern and Cal State Bakersfiel­d, Flanigan said, but he has the potential to turn major-college heads on a national tournament stage.

“I think folks are scared of his height and size,” Flanigan said. “His heart is unbelievab­le. For the last two years, he’s been showing me he’s ready for the big stage.”

As Higgins put it: “Heart over height.”

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