December 21, 2012 12:07:17 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
The giving will begin in earnest today.
Columbus High School boys basketball coach Sammy Smith, his players, and staff already have been hard at work for a year to put the finishing touches on the 16th annual Joe Horne Christmas Invitational. The two-day annual basketball tournament that features some of the region's top girls and boys teams kicks off at 3 p.m. today with the first of seven games. Eight games will be played Saturday.
On Thursday, Smith and the Falcons added a little more cheer to the holiday season when they handed out $300 in gift cards to shoppers at the Food Giant grocery store on Alabama Road in Columbus.
"One of our players was about to hand a gift card to a woman and she was about to pay him for the card," Smith said. "Our player didn't know what to say. When we told her we were giving her the card, she was about to cry. She said nobody has ever given her anything and she has never won anything.
"That one incident made my guys' day. I tell them all of the time that one incident can change you and make an impression on you for the rest of your life."
For Smith, the event is something he tries to do every year prior to the Joe Horne tournament, which has become a signature event that attracts top competition. The No. 1 Amanda Elzy High boys will take on the No. 2 Provine High boys in tonight's final game scheduled for 8:20 p.m.
Smith said he was in the right spot at the right time to help secure tonight's marquee matchup. Following Amanda Elzy's victory in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state title game, Smith said he was standing outside the team's dressing room when coach Gerald Glass came out of the locker room. Smith said he has known Glass for years and was just about to invite him and his team to the 2012 Joe Horne Christmas Invitational when Glass said, "I'm there." Smith didn't know then that Amanda Elzy would be matched up against Provine, which also participated in the 2011 event, but the pairings quickly came into focus as more and more teams said they would attend.
Even though Columbus missed out on opportunities to bring Callaway, one of the state's top boys teams, and Carver, one of the top boys teams in the state of Alabama, to town this year, Smith is more than happy with how things have come together. Callaway is playing in a holiday tournament in Florida, while Carver is playing in a holiday event in Hawaii.
"I am excited about how things have come around and by the quality of word of mouth comments about our tournament," Smith said. "We have Wenonah (boys and girls), one of the top teams in the state of Alabama, along with Gadsden (Ala.) to keep this thing rolling. We also have Ridgeway, one of the top teams from the city of Memphis (Tenn.). This is what we try to do for the people of Columbus. We try to get the best teams."
Smith hopes Columbus can add to the excitement. His team will take on Marion (Ark.) at 7 tonight and Tuscaloosa Central (Ala.) at 6:40 p.m. Saturday. The Columbus girls will face Meridian at 5:40 p.m. today and Wenonah (Ala.) at 5:20 p.m. Saturday.
The Columbus boys enter the tournament on a three-game winning streak.
"We're playing a little better like we thought we would to try to prepare for the Classic," Smith said. "We are learning to close games out and to make adjustments on the court. They have seen things and are reacting to them and not panicking about them. I think it is because the leadership we have and the quality of our kids. They are understanding the things they have to do to close games out."
Smith praised the leadership of senior Rashad Meeks, and said Brandon Porter has taken on a bigger scoring role. He feels the inside play of Devin Berry and J.J. Swanigan could be keys to helping the Falcons to take their game to another level.
On the girls side, Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston is excited to play Meridian, the state's No. 2 team. She isn't as eager to play Wenonah (Ala.) in part because she doesn't know as much about that team aside from the fact it has two post players who are taller than 6 feet.
But Hairston knows her team, which has championship aspirations this season, can use the experience to focus on fundamentals and things it does well to have success.
At 8-3, Hairston said Columbus has overcome injuries and illnesses and the loss of guard/forward Maggie Proffitt, who transferred to Starkville Academy. She said all of the team's losses (Scott Central, Forest Hill, and Starkville) came when the team was at less than 100 percent.
"I had to bring them to the realization of what is going on because they did kind of drop their head (after the losses)," Hairston said. "Last year, we lost three games. I had to bring them in and talk them through it and tell them that this is the time of the year we would love to be playing well, but we have some people out and you have to understand how many people we have lost and injured. It doesn't matter how you're playing early in the season. It matters how you're playing late in the season."
Hairston said seniors KiKi Patterson, a Mississippi State University commitment, and Daisha Williams have helped lead the team. She said post players LaTerrica Jefferson and transfer Brinna Hughes give the Lady Falcons their first true inside presence in a number of years. She also has been pleased with the added contributions of seniors Kameron Corrothers and KaDaryl Ledbetter.
"We are all back and we have everybody healthy and we have been playing well as of late," Hairston said. "This will be a really good weekend for us. This will kind of let us know where we are, and it will let us know if we are doing things right fundamentally."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.