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Splash brothers: Austin's one-two punch fuels dominant season

Feb. 3—In the history of basketball, great teams are usually marked by a star duo.

The Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant and Shaq, and the Warriors have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Those duos combined to lead their teams to 13 NBA championships.

Here in north Alabama, the Austin Black Bears are certainly having a championship caliber season. The Black Bears are 25-4 and ranked No. 2 in Class 7A, the state's largest classification. They've also won 18 of their last 19 games and have only one loss since the start of December, a single-point away loss to Huntsville, Class 7A's No. 1 team.

And just like all those great NBA championship teams, Austin has it's own dynamic duo: senior Jordan Johnson and junior Harry Malone.

The two players have been a key part of Austin's season so far as their relationship brings out their best.

"We work well together," Malone said. "When one of us does something good, it fuels the other. We feed off each other."

"We're really competitive in practice and I think that carries over into the games," added Johnson.

So far this season, Johnson is leading the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game, as well as grabbing seven rebounds per game, while Harry Malone is scoring 10.2 points per game.

Both Johnson and Malone said they're at they're best when they're playing off one another and that was on full display this Tuesday when they combined for 48 (25 for Johnson, 23 for Malone) of Austin's 76 points in a 76-59 win over Hartselle.

That relationship on the court is not something that happened overnight. It's been building for years.

"I think it starts off the court; they're good friends," said Austin head coach Desmond Phillips. "That translates to on the court. They're always looking for each other."

The splash brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, have been arguably the NBA's most exciting duo in recent years. However, when asked to compare themselves, Johnson and Malone opted for a more under-the-radar tandem.

"I would say we're most like Donavan Mitchell and Darrius Garland of the (Cleveland) Cavaliers," Johnson said.

Like any great basketball duo, Johnson and Malone elevate not just each other, but the entire team as well.

"Sharing the ball and seeing everyone else being successful is contagious," Phillips said. "When those guys get going, that confidence oozes out and it trickles down to everyone else.

Each player brings a different set of skills to the court.

"I would say he's got the better overall skills," Malone said of Johnson.

"He's the better dunker though," Johnson added. "He can jump out of the gym."

Malone said he's happy to be the exciting one that throws down dunks.

"That's what people love to see, right?"

Becoming a championship team

Last year was Phillips' first season coaching for the Black Bears, and it was a strong start. Austin finished 20-10 and won 12 games in a row before seeing its season end to eventual state champion Hoover.

The Black Bears have taken an even bigger leap in year two under Phillips.

"I think everyone just really bought into Coach Phillips' vision," Johnson said. "We had a strong end to last season and it showed us how good we could be if we kept putting in the work."

That hard work has paid dividends so far this season.

Going into January of last season, Austin sat at .500 with a 9-9 record. This year, however, the Black Bears were 15-4 entering the new year.

Despite this, they feel they're an even better team now than they were in the first half of this season.

"I feel like we're way better than we were earlier this year. You're seeing us get better every game," Malone said.

Postseason play begins for Austin on Tuesday when the Black Bears take on Bob Jones in the first round of the Class 7A, Area 8 tournament which is being hosted at Austin High School. Austin is undefeated in area play this season with an average margin of victory of 27 points.

Should Austin defeat Bob Jones, the Black Bears will advance to the Northwest Regional tournament for the third year in a row.

Unlike last year when they lost to Hoover 65-41, this time they feel they're ready to play at the championship level.

"When you look at the teams we've played, we've played some of the best teams around," Malone said. "If we can play with them, we can play with anybody."

—caleb.suggs@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2395. Twitter @CalebSuggs2