NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Marques Jackson was a big man with big dreams and visions, not the least of which was fashioning a group of spunky dervishes into the talk of the girls' basketball club circuit.
That vision has roots in the day a younger DFW team of Jackson's beat up on a team also from the Dallas area called the Lady Panthers Elite. On that Panthers team were three young guards named Empress Davenport, Moriah Jefferson and Jordan Jones.
After the game, his bravado keeping pace with his forethought, Jackson told the trio, "If you want to win, you need to come join DFW."
Jefferson bit first. Then the Panthers folded, and Davenport and Jones soon followed. Those three would form the core of the DFW T-Jack team that beat the Fairfax Stars 58-36 on Sunday in the gold-bracket championship game of Nike Nationals.
Sunday's was the third Nike Nationals championship berth for DFW, but the first win. The program also advanced to the final last year, as well as in 2008, then with Brittney Griner. Jackson was there for the first two, but not the one he thought about, talked about and shaped for so many years. He died of a heart attack a year ago in April at age 48.
The loss devastated the program -- the sport, really -- but it weighed mostly on this particular group of girls, the ones Jackson shined on, pushed endlessly and promoted shamelessly for years. They vowed to win Nike Nationals for him. And when they did, the dam broke.
"He should be here," Jefferson said through a waterfall of tears. "This is all he could talk about, us winning Nike Nationals. We did it, and I wish he was here to see it."
If he had been, Jackson would have smiled at the performance of his prized protégé Jefferson, the No. 2 prospect in the 2012 class, a Connecticut commit and the Nike Nationals tournament MVP, as chosen by ESPN HoopGurlz. She scored half of the points as DFW went on a deal-closing 10-0 run late in the second half. He would have beamed with pride at the withering defensive pressure that became this team's trademark. And he would have had a pat on the back for his longtime friend, T-Jack coach Darryl Horton, who schemed up bumping Fairfax post Brionna Jones down the lane with his bigs and making her fight for every square inch of prized inside real estate. She finished with just two points.
The justice of that latter move would not have been lost on Jackson. It was Jones, after all, who carved up this DFW team not once but twice at the Nike Summer Showcase in Chicago during the first half of this summer evaluation period. Those two losses, combined with one to Essence at their own tournament, turned the fleet and previously feared T-Jack squad into the equivalent of a Maserati riding into Nike Nationals on three blown-out tires.
At least that was the perception from the outside.
"Losing those two tournaments helped us," Horton said.
See, Jackson believed in building character through hardship.
And his beloved T-Jack ran a regular gantlet since his death, from Jefferson getting cut twice by USA Basketball to a spate of injuries and losses earlier this month to in-fighting and a rotation of team meetings amid rumors of the team breaking up. Then they paved a road to redemption at Nike Nationals, squaring things by beating Essence during pool play, then taking down Fairfax after gutting out a two-point semifinal win over the Tennessee Flight, which many considered the tournament favorite.
"I'm glad everyone stayed together," said a sobbing Jones, the Texas A&M commit ranked No. 15 in the 2012 class. "Today was really hard because we knew this was it. We wanted to show everybody that, despite all the fighting and everything, that we weren't just a second-half team. We knew we had to win this for Coach . Everybody was nervous before the game. He talked last year about us winning the championship in 2011. He basically was telling us to wait our turn, and we did."
One misty memory kept churning in Mo Jefferson's head, over and over, this whole week. Shortly before he died, Jackson had taken her for sustenance after a game. That was the only connection of that moment to basketball.
Jefferson hadn't felt like eating "real" food; she wanted something sweet and craved a graham-cracker treat. Jackson had insisted she drink some milk, which she doesn't like.
"Those [graham crackers] will suck the spit out of you," Jackson told Jefferson.
They went back and forth. Jefferson finally asked him where they would go. He named a place, Dollar General, that seemed random for a reason, "because they accept food stamps," that seemed equally random.
"I don't even know why he said that," Jefferson said. "But that moment is stuck in me forever. It's funny the things you think about."
It's funny the way life plays out. And for DFW Sunday was, well, big all around, just the way Marques Jackson would have liked it.
Nike Nationals championship box
DFW T-Jack (56): Brianna Turner 12, Empress Davenport 9, Moriah Jefferson 8, Jordan Jones 8, Chelsea Jennings 7, Courtney Walker 6, Kristina Higgins 3, Nelsha Peterson 3, Bridget Robinson 2, Kendall Shaw 2, Ashley Eli, Lashann Higgs, Gabrielle Wilkins.
Fairfax Stars (36): Courtni Green 13, Logan Battle 8, Katie McCormick 8, Breyana Mason 3, Brionna Jones 2, Diana Logan 2, Brittany Murray, Danielle Robinson, Elizabeth Wood.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.