February 19, 2014 11:44:51 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
MADISON -- When her team needed a lift the most, Starkville High School's Blair Schaefer was there to provide it.
Schaefer scored 14 of her game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter as the Starkville High girls basketball team edged Columbus 58-55 Tuesday night in an opening-round game of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 3 tournament at Madison Central High.
"My dad and I have this thing where coaches daughters don't miss free throws," said Schaefer, who was 24 of 25 at the free throw line. "Every day I go to Mississippi State where I run sprints and shoot free throws. That can be the difference between winning and losing. I tried to lead and will my team to the win."
Starkville (18-5) will face Northwest Rankin (19-8) at 6 p.m. Friday for the region tournament championship. The victory guaranteed Starkville a first-round MHSAA Class 6A North State playoff game Monday night.
Columbus finished 17-9, but the season didn't end before a rally from a 24-4 deficit. The Lady Falcons never led, but they trailed by a point in the final minute and had two possessions to try to take the lead.
"The best player on the floor (Schaefer) won the game," Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said. "Sometimes you play hard, you play well, you play your hearts out. You do everything right and you get beaten because the other team had the best player on the floor. That is what happened tonight."
Starkville beat Columbus twice in the regular season. However, Starkville needed a third win to keep its season alive, so there was plenty of intensity for the opening tip.
"We really came out motivated and focused and ready to go," Starkville senior Imane Montgomery said. "Maybe it came too easy early because everything went our way. We had a let-up then we had a little doubt, but we kept pushing."
Back-to-back baskets by Daija Williams gave Starkville a 22-4 lead after the first quarter. When Schaefer drove to the basket, drew a foul and hit two free throws, the lead was a game-high 20 points less than a minute into the second quarter.
Columbus then went to work, as Kayla Rogers and Rokila Wallace found a rhythm on offense. The Lady Falcons scored eight straight points before falling back down 30-12.
Wallace followed with a 3-pointer to the Lady Falcons use a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to 32-21 at halftime.
"When it is a win-or-go-home situation you will have some tightness," Hairston said. "We experienced that in the first quarter. We just had to calm down and treat it like any other game. The comeback was incredible, but that is what this team is about. They are not going to back down from anyone."
Columbus' full-court pressure caused fits in the third quarter. The Lady Jackets used nine-straight points from four players -- thanks in part to six turnovers by the Lady Yellow Jackets -- to pull within 39-35 when the third quarter ended.
"We challenged our senior leaders to step up in the fourth quarter," Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. "For the seniors, their high school careers were on the line. No one ever wants to play that last game. It is so difficult to beat a team three times in one season. You have confidence because you have won twice before. At the same time, you know how hard and how well the other team is going to come out and play, because they haven't beaten you yet. We just wanted to come out in the fourth quarter and make enough plays to hang on."
Schaefer and Montgomery provided the lift Williams wanted, scoring all 19 of the team's points in the fourth quarter. Every time Columbus appeared ready to take a first lead, Starkville was right there with Montgomery pounding the ball inside or Schaefer penetrating from the lane and getting to the foul line.
In the fourth quarter, Schaefer was 12 of 12 at the line while her teammates were 0-for-6.
"I got a little emotional because we had a 20-point lead and when they cut it to a tighter game, I was getting a little uptight," Schaefer said. "I wasn't trying to show it because I know team feeds off me, so I really can't show that. I was trying to stay strong because I knew we weren't going to lose this game. I wasn't going to give them any chance to do that."
Columbus closed within a point four times in the fourth quarter. Starkville answered on offense the first three times. On the final time, the Lady Falcons had possession down a point twice but turned the ball over one and had a 10-foot jump shot by Brianna Edinburgh fall short.
Schaefer hit four free throws in the final 33 seconds to seal the deal.
Montgomery added 15 points for Starkville, while Wallace had 19 points and Rogers had 13 for Columbus.
"We were fortunate," Williams said. "Every time you win this late in the season you feel fortunate."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter