SAN ANTONIO — Wagner is in a boys basketball state final for the second time in three years.

Driven since losing in the 2017 Class 6A title game, the Thunderbirds earned a berth in the 5A final with a 62-52 victory over Sulphur Springs on Thursday night before a crowd of 8,552 at the Alamodome.

Junior Journee Phillips scored 19 points and senior Jalen Jackson had 18 for Wagner, which won its 19th consecutive game. 

Wagner (33-5) will play Mansfield Timberview (37-2) for the 5A championship Saturday at 3 p.m. The Thunderbirds beat the Wildcats 70-68 in the Whataburger Classic on Dec. 29 in Haltom City.

"They're going to be fired up, but we're going to be fired up, too," Wagner coach Rodney Clark said.

Keaston Willis and Sadaidriene Hall led the Sulphur Springs scoring with 23 and 20 points, respectively.

The Thunderbirds put the Wildcats (29-9) on their heels from the get-go, stifling them with their defensive pressure and pushing the pace with their up-tempo offense. They led by 13 with 1:30 left in the first quarter before the Wildcats scored the last six points of the period to make it 19-12 after one.

Wagner coach Rodney Clark talks to his players during a timeout in the fourth quarter
Wagner coach Rodney Clark talks to his players during a timeout in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's semifinal game against Sulphur Springs.
Photo by David Flores / KENS5.com

"It's what we do," Clark said. "We've been doing that all year. We just kept getting better and better at it. I'm going to keep repeating this until everything's other. Coach Corrales said you have to stay starting and they're (his players) for this."

Clark was referring to Judson coach Triva Corrales, who led the Rockets to the 6A state championship last Saturday.

"They (Thunderbirds) understand that we went (to the final) two years ago, even though there are only two of them (on this season's team), and they don't want to let people down. So, they are starting to get this done."

Jackson, a four-year starter at point guard, was a sophomore on the 2016-17 team that lost in the 6A final. Phillips made the varsity as a freshman and also started in the state tournament that year.

Asked if he thinks the Thunderbirds can be beat when they play with the effort they had Thursday night, Clark didn't flinch before replying quickly.

"No," he said. "I don't think so. Now, it's going to be tough. They'll bring energy, too. Whoever is the best on the defensive end should be able to get the win on Saturday."

Wagner, which dropped to 5A at the start of the current school year with the UIL’s biennial realignment, lost to Cypress Falls 63-57 in the 6A championship game in 2017. The Thunderbirds fell in the semifinals in 2009 and 2010.

"We just came out pumped and ready to play," said Phillips, who plays shooting guard. "We just came out executing on the defensive end to apply pressure and take them out of their comfort zone, and execute on the offensive end."

Wagner forward Demarcus Hendricks battles Sulphur Springs Xavier Cork for position
Wagner junior forward Demarcus Hendricks fights Sulphur Springs forward Xavier Cork for position under the basket Thursday night.
Photo by David Olmos / Special to KENS5.com

Phillips was asked about Saturday's rematch with Timberview, which rolled to a 79-55 win over Manor in the first 5A semifinal Thursday night.

"Great team," Phillips said of the Wolves. "I feel like we play alike, playing fast and getting up on the defensive end, so it's just going to be a dogfight in the Saturday game."

The Thunderbirds and Wildcats missed only one free throw each. Sulphur Springs went 19 of 20 at the line and Wagner was 10 of 11. Jalen Jackson was 8 of 8 from the free-throw line.

Jackson already was looking ahead to Saturday's title game.

"We've got to go back and refocus, watch film, see what we didn't do in that game, so we can do better and come out on top," Jackson said. 

Sulphur Springs had a height advantage against Wagner, but the Thunderbirds won the rebounding battle 25-19. Phillips led Wagner on the boards with seven rebounds.

"Just to be physical and do what we do," Clark said, when asked what Wagner's mindset was going into the game. "Try to get them out of their comfort zone."

Wagner senior point guard Jalen Jackson in action against Sulphur Springs
Wagner senior point guard Jalen Jackson scored 18 points and added five assists and three steals in Thursday night's win over Sulphur Springs.
Photo by David Olmos / Special to KENS5.com

And what about the stellar game Phillips had?

"Sometimes when you get fired up by the coach, you turn it on," Clark said. "And when he's the second-best guy on the team, supposedly, he has to do that. I've been telling him since day one, 'You have to be a guy for us on both ends. It can't just be on one end. And he stepped it up at the right time."

Wagner, which trailed only once (4-3), was ahead 45-38 heading into the fourth quarter.

Ja'Sean Jackson, who finished with 12 points, beat the buzzer with a three-pointer to put Wagner up 30-20 at the half. A sophomore, Jackson is the younger brother of Jalen Jackson.

The Wildcats had a better shooting night than the Thunderbirds, hitting 15 of 28 shots for 53.6 percent. They made 3 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc.

Wagner shot 44.2 percent (23-52) and was 31.6 percent (6-19) from the three-point line. 

Sulphur Springs played in the state tournament for the first time since 1925, when it earned its first berth.

Wagner's 19-game winning streak began after a 90-75 loss to Denton Guyer in the Whataburger Classic on Dec. 28. The Thunderbirds bounced back with the two-point win over Timberview the next day.