ELGIN, Ill.-- Even though she knew he wouldn't answer, Kyaris Johnson dialed Marques Jackson's number in late April, desperate to listen to the voice of the man she says was "like a dad."
"Two weeks after (he died), I was calling just to hear his voicemail," says Johnson, a guard on DFW's TJack Elite, the top team in the DFW program. "He was like my best friend."
On April 12, DFW and all of high school girls basketball lost a giant in the game when Jackson, the founder of DFW, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46. Heartbroken, his top teams pulled out of the Boo Williams Invitational in Virginia to mourn the loss of the man everyone called "Coach Mud."
Three months later, riding on emotion and memories of Jackson's famous pregame talks, DFW TJack went back and forth for 32 minutes with Midwest Elite in the final of the Nike Summer Showcase, clawing to a 61-53 win. It was a gritty, gutsy win for TJack, which advanced to the championship after a double overtime win over their sister program, DFW Elite Washington. In true dominant DFW fashion, they also had DFW Gold, a 2012-heavy bunch, playing in the other semifinal.
After the semifinal battle of the DFWs, TJack and Elite Washington gathered at center court, wrapping their arms around each other and bowing their heads in prayer.
"We've definitely gotten much closer," said Moriah Jefferson, a 2012 superstar who scored 17 points for TJack in the championship. "Before, we were all over the place. Now we're all calling and texting each other all the time -- everybody is making sure everybody else is OK.
"He was the glue that held us together. Now we're trying to make sure we stay together for him."
Had he been in the Centre on Tuesday, Jackson no doubt would have been proud of Jefferson, who wowed the crowd with lightning fast crossovers and did-you-see-that finishes.
He would have loved watching De'Amber Wilhite pour in 21 points, the result of relentless rebounding coupled with a few sweet spin moves. He would have smiled when Johnson hit a long baseline jumper with three minutes left, a shot that brought TJack within one, 43-42, and sent her teammates into a frenzy. From there it was all DFW, as TJack hit 13 of 14 free throws during the final 2:24 to seal the win.
For the first time since Jackson died, TJack coach Daryl Horton on Tuesday mentioned Jackson in his pregame talk. It was simple and to the point -- we know what time it is, we know why we're here, and we know who we're playing for.
"They're definitely playing with more passion," said Horton, his voice catching. "You saw it out there today, they way they dug in and dug it out. He's be smiling if he were here. This is where we're supposed to be."
How to move on is still something the entire DFW program is figuring out. Horton says the girls have "circled the wagons," and developed an "us against the world" attitude, using the loss of Jackson as fuel. Above all else, they say, they want to make him proud.
"Coach Jackson, when he walked in the gym, if you had been giving 100 percent, when he walked in you gave 200 percent," Jefferson said. "He always used to tell us, 'Play hard for me,' and every game, we did."
They still are.
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Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.