Mark Madness: Sears gets Final Four shot after winding journey

Apr. 5—Ralston Turner decided he'd join the summer pickup game.

Why not?

The former Muscle Shoals standout, home from North Carolina State, was back in his old high school gym getting some offseason work in and it seemed like a good way to make things a little more interesting and a bit more fun. So, he ran with one of the teams.

Among the group of high schoolers playing in 2015 was a rising eighth-grader. He was more lanky then, still a while away from growing into his frame. He was a little on the shorter side, too. Even then, Mark Sears impressed.

"You could tell just in a few minutes that he was more advanced than his peers," Turner said. "That's for sure."

But a lot can change over seven years. It has for that lanky teenager.

On Saturday, Sears will be playing on a much different stage, one that will be a tad larger. The stakes a smidge higher. The Final Four and a matchup against UConn await. The winner will face either North Carolina State or Purdue.

It's the seventh appearance in the national semifinals for the Huskies (35-3), the reigning national champions. A win would give them a chance to be the first program to win consecutive titles since the Billy Donovan-coached Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007.

It's first showing this late in the NCAA tournament for Alabama (25-11). And behind Crimson Tide's path to Glendale, Arizona, has been Sears.

His 21.5 points per game ranks 11th in the country, while his 3-point shooting, at 43%, is good for ninth nationally. Then there's the four NCAA tournament games, where Sears has scored a combined 97 points and hit 17 3s. It's led to phrases like "Get Seared" and "Mark Madness" popping up.

"Man, just feeling a lot of emotion," Sears told reporters after the Elite Eight win over Clemson. "Being from the state of Alabama and to do it with this group of guys, it's amazing."

That path just hasn't been linear. It's a journey that's taken him from Muscle Shoals to Hargrave Military School in Virginia to Ohio University and finally to Tuscaloosa.

"You could see it then," Turner said. "When you look at his game back when he was at high school, and once I got done playing, I had a chance to come back home and watch him play more, he controlled the game. Obviously, his teams throughout the years had success and a lot of that was him.

"I always thought he had a chance, so I'm not surprised, at all, what's happened."

'Put the ball away and go to bed'

Naturally, mom and dad aren't, either.

Chad and Lameka Sears met while students at North Alabama one day in the library. Chad, an All-American defensive back on the football team in the late 1990s, was convinced to swing by one day after practice by a teammate. Lameka was a nursing student.

Mark was born in 2002. His sister, Makenzie, followed six years later.

But Chad and Lameka never pushed their oldest child towards basketball. T-ball was given a go. So were football and soccer at various points. The gravitation to basketball just kind of happened naturally. It helps when you learn to dribble a ball before you can walk as Lameka put it.

"It started from a very, very young age," Chad said with a laugh. "He had just started walking and we had gotten him a Little Tikes basketball hoop for Christmas around his second birthday. Well, he was getting so frustrated and crying because he couldn't put it in the basket, but by the end of the day, he was putting the ball in the hoop.

"From that day, it was like, 'Put the ball away and go to bed' because he was so in love with the game."

But if the Little Tikes hoop provided a springboard, it was the Shoals YMCA where Mark started to develop his skills by playing up. When he was 3, Mark began competing against 5-year-olds, part of a deal Chad struck if he was willing to coach the team.

There were, of course, some nerves — both for practices and leading up to the first game. It didn't take long for those to dissipate.

"He was rebounding, scoring, playing defense," Lameka said. "Doing a little bit of everything."

It wasn't all that different as Mark grew older or what the level was.

Not long after that summer pickup game, the eighth-grade Mark began the season on the junior varsity team. That role lasted about a month.

"By Christmas, we're watching him on JV doing things that need to be done in our games and we need him," Trojans coach Neal Barker said. "For an eighth-grader, he was big enough and strong enough to help us."

That season, Muscle Shoals beat Lee-Huntsville and defending champion Carver-Montgomery in consecutive games, setting up a matchup against Homewood for the Class 6A title.

The Trojans lost 54-51. Sears scored 12 points, one of three players to score in double figures.

"I was livestreaming the game and at that point, I had never seen him play live in a game and seeing that, you knew he was going to be OK," Turner said. "He was their best ballhandler."

That remains Muscle Shoals' only appearance in a state final. The Trojans did get back to the state semifinals in 2019. Mark had a 31-point, 12-rebound, 5-assist performance in the Northwest Regional final that year.

"His game was very similar to what he's doing now to be honest," Barker said. "He was very good at getting to the paint off the dribble and finishing once he got there and very good if a defense rotated to help. If a defense prevented him from scoring then he was very good at finding open teammates and creating shots for others. A solid point guard, who shot the ball well.

"He's put in a lot of work and improved since then, but you watch him play now and you go, 'I remember him doing that for us.' Now, it's just at a different level."

'This was his opportunity'

Ben Veshi admits he can be on his phone quite a bit.

It comes with his job as the postgraduate head coach and director of Hargrave basketball operations. But the latest requests aren't so much interested in playing for his program.

"I've had faculty members who taught Mark while he was here come up to me and say, 'Hey, can you call Mark and tell him we wish him good luck?'" said Veshi, who was an assistant for the school's varsity team during Mark's one-year stay in 2019-20. "It's a special feeling to see Mark, along with the rest of our guys, have these opportunities and earn these opportunities."

Hargrave is a private, all-male, military boarding school located in the town of Chatham, Virginia, about 144 miles west of Richmond, the state capital, and 30 miles north of the North Carolina state line. The enrollment is 200.

Known for its basketball programs, the school has produced a slew of people associated with the NBA or Power Five basketball. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown attended the school in the late 1950s. N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts coached at Hargrave. New Vanderbilt coach Mark Byington is associated with the program as well.

It was Sears' next stop after three years at Muscle Shoals.

"The best way I can describe it is it was really refreshing to coach Mark," Veshi said. "I have a smirk on my face because the team he played on had a lot of big personalities. He was very quiet, a little homesick at the beginning of the year. But he was one of those guys who would ask to get shots up at the gym at 5 a.m. He was focused and businesslike. He was a joy to be around and special to coach."

Among Sears' teammates were future Auburn guard J.D. Johnson and Tennessee — and later South Florida — forward Corey Walker Jr.

That group went 37-4, reaching the semifinals of the prep national championship.

But it might have been a game Sears played in the HoopHall Classic, a high school tournament in Springfield, Massachusetts, that stands out the most.

Hargrave made the north-bound drive with the intention to only play two games, but a snowstorm had forced some other teams to drop out. It set Hargrave up with Orangeville, a prep power out of Canada, on Jan. 21 on ESPN. It was the first game that day and Hargrave's third in three days.

"I just remember Mark having a look in his eye that this was his opportunity," Veshi said. "We end up running Orangeville Prep out of the gym. It was a really great game and Mark has a highlight in there of him crossing somebody up behind the back, makes them fall and hits a jumper. That's actually part of our recruiting video today to show prospects and recruits.

"Every time I see it, I just smirk thinking how differently it could have been. We could have gotten caught in a snowstorm going back to Virginia."

Mark Sears collected 18 points and 13 rebounds. Hargrave won 91-73.

And then shortly after the season ended, COVID happened.

It slowed down recruiting just as Sears was starting to draw a little more interest. But instead of taking a postgraduate year at Hargrave, he opted for Ohio University. Lee Martin, his Hargrave coach had recently been named an assistant coach.

Sears graduated that July and that afternoon drove from the ceremony to Ohio for an unofficial visit.

In the two seasons he spent at Ohio, Sears was named a two-time All-Mid-American Conference honoree. He was a finalist for the Lou Henson Award given to the nation's top player at a mid-major program.

Sears averaged almost 20 points per game with six rebounds and four assists in his last year with the Bobcats. He shot just under 41% from 3-point range.

But Sears had always wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference and put his name in the transfer portal.

"He had always written down his goals, even from a young age," Chad said. "But after being away from home, he wanted that opportunity to play closer to home and closer to family."

It landed Mark at Alabama. The fit seemed right — certainly for the player and for his parents, too.

Chad and Lameka attend every game. And it isn't uncommon to see mom in the stands helping Mark focus throughout the game, particularly at the free-throw line.

"Ever since he was at the YMCA, it would always be 'OK, Mark, put it in the cookie jar,'" Lameka said with a laugh. "That's what it originally was and used that up until a couple of years ago. After that, it was 'Make sure you use your legs. One, two.' I've always done it."

Mark was a second-team All-SEC selection last year and considered entering the NBA draft. He opted to return and was a second-team All-American this season.

"I probably screwed up not offering him out of high school," Alabama coach Nate Oats said at a recent press conference. "Not probably, we did screw up."

'He's a winner'

Sometimes, that's just part of the journey and how things work out. Sometimes, things happen that way for a reason.

It did for Mark. Alabama, too. Saturday's game will be proof of that.

Chad and Lameka will be in the stands, eager to root for their son just as they did in Spokane, Washington, and Los Angeles. This time, though, it might be a little more exciting. And mom's voice will certainly be heard.

Of course, they wouldn't mind going on the journey a little bit longer.

"Sometimes you think you're missing out on stuff and you're not," Lameka said. "You're filtering out a lot of the distractions. So the attention, that maybe Mark should have received and didn't, it's like God never forgot.

"It's like gifts on a self that you can't reach until you reach a certain age. I believe certain things have been laid out on the shelf just for Mark and now it's his time to get those."

So, any final predictions?

Now, that's an easy choice.

"He wants to win," Chad said. "He is a winner and has always been a winner."

David Glovach can be reached at or on Twitter @DavidGlovach