February 2, 2013 11:00:59 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE - Avonte' Amos and Ravonte' Gandy knew there would be valleys when they took over leadership roles.
Still, the lone seniors on the Starkville High School basketball team feel like the Yellow Jackets are peaking at the right time.
Further proof of that belief took place Friday night as Starkville played arguably its most complete game of the year in a 72-48 victory against Noxubee County at the Bee Hive.
"We started the year with a lot of young guys," Amos said. "It took a while for things to come together. With Ravonte', since we are the only two seniors, it was our job to step up and be leaders. The young guys have really come along this year. We have come a long way since the beginning of the season."
Noxubee County won an earlier meeting between the teams, 82-64, at the Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Classic. Starkville turned the tables with a stifling full-court press, which caused 14 turnovers in the fourth quarter.
"In the second half, we played really well, especially in the full-court press," Starkville coach Greg Carter said. "We got on a roll with the press. Once we got a steal or two, we got some momentum. It seemed like we got our hands on balls on every trip. Once we got into transition, the lead kept ballooning from there."
Noxubee County (12-10) built a 15-9 lead after a sluggish first quarter. The teams missed the first 17 shots from the field for more than four minutes.
Once Caleb Wilson snapped out of his early struggles and made a few shots, things opened up for Starkville. The Yellow Jackets battled back on top thanks to a 3-pointer from Gandy. The lead changed hands four more times, with Noxubee County taking a 30-27 halftime lead.
"It was all about offense for us," Amos said. "Defense is what wins game. The coaches told us to pick it up on the defensive end in the second half. Once we got some deflections that got us going."
Gandy said the ability to put together a strong second half is a sign of maturity for a young team.
"The first time we played they beat us down the court," Gandy said. "The whole week of practice we worked on getting back and stuff. The zoned us the whole time, so we had to make some shots. Most likely, (the second half) was the best defensive half we have played all season."
Carter felt like the team needed a change in momentum to start the second half. Full-court pressure early in the second half proved the correct answer.
"Our starts to games have been good," Carter said. "In third quarters, we have not played well this year. The best part of this game was the intensity and focus and our ability to build the lead."
Trailing 35-32 after a 3-pointer by Noxubee County's Kendarius McNeese, Starkville seized control with 13 straight points. The run was fueled by Wilson and Raphael Leonard, a pair of football players who joined the team later after the Yellow Jackets' run to the Class 5A state championship.
"We have not been on our defense as much as we should have been this season," Gandy said. "Maybe this is the turning point. We showed tonight what type of team we can be when we put it all together."
Leonard and Richard Evans played key roles in the pressure. Evans had three straight steals that led to fast-break baskets.
Noxubee County cut it to 54-45 only to see the hosts put the contest away with 11 straight points.
"We played with more confidence in the fourth quarter than we have all season," Amos said. "You can always play defense. The main thing is we made shots."
Starkville (7-13 overall, 3-3 region) built on its victory Friday night by knocking off region rival Canton 63-47 on Senior Night.
The Yellow Jackets will still enter the region tournament as a three seed. Canton and Yazoo City play Tuesday to determine the top two seeds in the region tournament, which begins Feb. 12 at Canton.
The top two teams advance to the North State playoffs. In the past three seasons, such advancement was a given. Now, Starkville will have to work hard to move on. Still, both seniors like their team's chances.
"In the second half of the season, the team has really come together," Gandy said. "It took a long time to build chemistry. I feel pretty confident about this team. Hopefully, this win can spark a fire and help us turn it up."
Said Amos, "We are really excited about the postseason. We think we can win some games."
Amos led Starkville with 17 points, while Wilson added 14 points.
Antonio Boyd led Noxubee County with 12.
In the girls game, Starkville overcame heavy foul trouble early to post a 59-50 victory against Noxubee County.
"Once Blair (Schaefer) and Imane (Montgomery) both went out with foul trouble, we could have very easily laid down and decided we couldn't keep up the fight," Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. " I was really proud of the guards. When you lose your top two leaders, it is really great to see some other players step up."
The game was competitive throughout, with the Lady Jackets building an early lead only to see Noxubee County (12-11) hang tough. Starkville seized the lead for good early in the second half.
"It was a battle tonight," Williams said. "It was an intense, physical game. You want to play these types of games late in the season because they help you prepare for the postseason."
Senior Kelsye Reed led Starkville with 21 points. With the victory, the Lady Jackets improved to 13-6, only to fall 24 hours later to Canton in a Class 5A, Region 3 game. Starkville will be the No. 2 seed in the region tournament thanks to a 4-2 region record.
"It's the little things we keep nagging about in practice," Williams said. "I like where we are. Everybody is on the same accord and everybody has the same goal. We are not looking at anything other than team chemistry. We have been building to that point. Tonight, we showed we had to play as a team. We showed the toughness you have to have to win games that matter."
Starkville will visit Madison Central, while Noxubee County will visit New Hope on Tuesday night.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter