November 7, 2012 3:15:06 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
Columbus High School boys basketball coach Sammy Smith admits he hopes to do less coaching this season with a veteran ballclub taking the floor.
However, Smith will always be ready to be pressed into service when the need arises.
"Defense, that is what he likes to remind us about," Columbus senior Devin Berry said. "Sometimes, you get to scoring points and you might forget defense. He is not going to let you do that."
Smith threw out the defensive suggestion early in the second quarter Tuesday night. The Falcons took the advice to heart and blew past the West Lowndes Panthers 76-49 in the prep basketball season opener for each team at Falcon Gym.
"I thought it was a good idea that we might start playing a little more defense," Smith said. "We are long and athletic. We got into the passing lanes and made some things happen. I saw a lot of good things for the first game."
Each team was missing key players since both schools are in the football playoffs. Still, Columbus pulled away from a 23-17 early second-quarter lead by forcing turnovers on seven of eight West Lowndes possessions.
"A lot of us have played together for a while, so we should know what we are doing on the court by now," Columbus junior Brandon Porter said. "It is all about finding a rhythm and staying confident. Really, there is a not lot of coaching to be done this season. It is really up to the guys to take ownership of the team and see how far we can take it."
Porter took over matters on both ends of the floor. His team-high 21 points, including a 9-of-11 night at the foul line. Defensively, Porter also sparked the turnover fest in the second quarter with a stretch of four straight steals.
"I don't know if we are any more athletic than we were last year," Smith said. "But I do know we are a year older, wiser and more mature. I think we will be a good defensive team. This season, we will play defense with more of a purpose and more of an understanding."
Berry feels confident this is the year that Columbus can turn the corner and make postseason noise."
"I have been waiting for this moment for a long time since this is my senior year," Berry said. "I know I have to provide leadership and I have to help my teammates out.
"I think the team is more focused this year. We enjoy playing with each other and we look forward to a good season."
Berry found himself in a bigger leadership role Tuesday night as he was the lone senior in uniform. Football players Roshad Meeks and Remadus Beasley will eventually move the senior total to three.
"I felt like a parent out there tonight.," Berry said. "Since this is my senior year, I want to give my very best to this team. I want my teammates to know I am there for them."
The fast-break opportunities were numerous. The challenge for the Falcons is to utilize such chances in the right way.
"We like to run, but we have to do a better job of doing it at the right times," Porter said. "In this game, we got turnovers and were able to turn them into points. Hopefully, we can continue to be smart with the ball like that."
The Falcons played conservative a year ago, allowing defense and rebounding to force the issue. A good offensive night could be considered the 60-point range.
If Tuesday night is any indication, the Falcons will be more up-tempo. Columbus forced numerous and-one opportunities and the rebounding was a group effort.
Columbus broke the contest open with a 13-2 run, which included contributions from five different players.
Porter and Berry combined for 22 first-half points as Columbus led 44-23 at the intermission.
"We have a long way to go but I thought we made some good decisions," Smith said. "It doesn't matter who you are playing, you can still take positives from the game and like the fact that the kids have a grasp of what you are trying to do."
Sophomore Shemar Johnson also made a name for himself with two rim-rattling dunks which created quite a buzz from the near capacity crowd.
Johnson finished with 17 points in his first varsity game. Berry added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
West Lowndes received 15 points from Michael Williams and 11 points from Eric Crawford.
Smith believes his squad will have the right balance of youth and experience to be a favorite in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 2 race.
"Our challenge is to be better than Grenada, South Panola and Tupelo," Smith said. "We have some really good non-region games and hopefully that will prepare us for that point.
"It is not how you start the season. It is all about how you finish. These players have been with us since ninth grade. We just got to grow up and get better each day. You can't let an opportunity get away to get better."
In the opener, the Columbus girls posted a 77-53 victory.
Both Columbus squads will travel to Starkville Tuesday night, after weekend play with West Oktibbeha has been canceled.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter