February 21, 2013 1:21:35 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
MACON -- While most postseason teams wouldn't put much stock in a three-game win streak, the attitude is different at Noxubee County High School.
Coach T.J. Billups' boys basketball team is finally streaking, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
For only the second time this season, Noxubee County won its third game in a row with a 64-52 victory against Pontotoc in an opening-round game of the Mississippi High School Activities Association's North State Class 4A playoffs played at Narvel Colemon Gymnasium.
Noxubee County will meet Lafayette County at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Corinth in the quarterfinal round of the North State playoffs. If the Tigers can run their winning streak to five, they will secure a trip to the overall state tournament in Jackson.
"It doesn't matter what happened in the regular season," Billups said. "We have been up and down all season, no question. However, we are winning games now when it matters most. The kids have confidence, and, hopefully, we can go to Corinth and steal one Thursday night."
On most nights, Noxubee County (15-13) goes as senior guard Jamarri Johnson goes. Tuesday night was no different, as Johnson scored 32 points, eight better than his average. His assault from 3-point range highlighted the third quarter and allowed the hosts to rally from an 30-29 deficit.
"This was my last chance to play a game on this floor, and I really wanted to go out with a win," Johnson said. "We were in this position (reaching the North State quarterfinals) last season and we didn't get it done at Shannon. This year, I think we feel wiser and will be more prepared and more focused.
"There is no way we were going to let this game be our last one."
Johnson saw to it, scoring eight straight points in a 10-0 run. After hitting a 20-foot 3-pointer, Johnson took two steps back two possessions later and drained a "heat check" 3-pointer.
"Jamarri did what he has done all season," Billups said. "When we really need a play, he steps up and carries the whole team on his back. That is what you expect from a senior co-captain. He earned that spot because his teammates know when the going is toughest, he will be a leader."
The lead changed hands in a sloppy first half. Pontotoc (14-17) led by as many as six late and trailed by one at halftime after Noxubee County rallied.
"We had a lack of focus to start the game," Noxubee County senior forward D.J. Robinson said. "I put that on myself as a captain. We came out slow and we weren't ready. I promise that won't happen again."
After the 10-0 run early in the third quarter, the Tigers were in complete control. Pontotoc managed only two field goals in the first 7 minutes, 15 seconds of the quarter. Noxubee County used stout defense and the sharp-shooting of Johnson to build a 45-34 lead.
"We have just been playing harder and getting it done on the defensive end," Johnson said. "Coach challenged us at halftime and told us it was win or go home. I took that challenge to heart and tried to make the most of the opportunity."
After the Warriors cut the margin to six early in the fourth quarter, Johnson delivered another long-range 3-pointer. Noxubee County led by at least seven the rest of the way. Free throw shooting by Robinson, after Pontotoc struggled to get Noxubee County into the bonus, sealed the deal.
"I knew at halftime, we couldn't keep playing the way we were and win," Robinson said. "We knew it was our time and we took it and ran with it."
Robinson added 12 points, while Charles Hughes had two points and five critical offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. Kendarius McNeese also added a couple of critical steals and baskets in the Tigers' late push.
Anthony Townsend led Pontotoc with 16 points, while Marcus Reed added 10.
"We took some steps last week (in winning the Class 4A, Region 4 tournament)," Billups said. "I think that carried over to this week. When we come out with the correct focus and play hard, we can beat a lot of teams."
With the lights now turned off on Noxubee County's home floor, the Tigers will need two victories in the space of 24 hours in Corinth to advance to the Mississippi Coliseum.
"We have a lot of confidence," Robinson said. "Winning three games in a row is not that big a deal, but it is to us. We feel like if we play good defense, we can beat anybody."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter