February 28, 2014 12:23:16 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School basketball player Dontavius Self has an infectious smile and an outgoing personality.
It's easy to see why he could be type of senior leader others would follow.
On the court, the demeanor is more fierce and determined. However, in the heat of the battle, the smile is still present.
He isn't the only player who has been smiling this year, either.
"We work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun," said Self, who is averaging a team-best 15 points per game this season. "A basketball season can be long, so we try to keep everything light. We know when to work hard and when to have fun. So far, it has worked really well for us."
Self and Starkville (24-4) will play host to Grenada (21-10) at 7:30 tonight in the Mississippi High School Activities Association North State Class 6A semifinal round. A win would send Starkville back to Jackson for the Class 6A state tournament for the fourth time in five years.
At 6 p.m. today, Madison Central (26-3) will take on Horn Lake (19-8). The winner of that game also will go to Jackson. The semifinal winners will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday in Starkville for the North State championship.
Starkville beat Grenada twice in the regular season -- winning 72-56 at home and 60-51 in Grenada. The stakes will be a little higher tonight.
"We know the pressure involved in beating a team three times," Starkville senior Richard Evans said. "We couldn't do it against Madison Central (in the Class 6A, Region 3 championship game), so we have to make sure we can do it here. It's a situation where you can't take anything for granted and you have to treat each possession like it is your last. You have to enter the game with mind-set that you really haven't accomplished anything."
Starkville coach Greg Carter has helped make the Yellow Jackets a regular in Jackson. Thanks in part to Mississippi State sophomore Gavin Ware, Starkville made it to the Mississippi Coliseum from 2010-12. Starkville won the state championship in 2010, lost to Meridian in the semifinals in 2011, and lost to Wayne County in the semifinals in 2012.
"The expectations are really high, so last year was a major disappointment," Starkville senior Fontavious Smith said. "We wanted to show everybody that Starkville basketball was back. That was the goal coming into the season. We really needed some good things to happen. Once we started winning, things really took off."
Thanks in part to injuries to Evans and Self, Starkville limped to an atypical losing record last season. However, the Yellow Jackets played well in the back stretch of region play.
"You saw a team really hit its stride late in the year," Evans said. "Everybody looks at the record and you think that team wasn't that good. Once we came together and started playing to our potential, we had some pretty good wins. Then we had some injuries and that really hurt us there at the end of the year."
Winning five of six games to close the regular season provided motivation to push a little harder in the weight room and during summer pickup games. The results were immediate.
Starkville breezed through November and overcame a minor series of setbacks in December -- a region loss at Columbus and a follow-up loss a week later at the Joe Horne Christmas Classic in Columbus. Starkville reeled off 10-straight wins, including a dominating performance against North State Class 5A semifinalist West Point.
A one-point home loss followed to North State Class 3A semifinalist Aberdeen. Starkville then righted the ship and beat Northwest Rankin in the region tournament to qualify for the playoffs. It beat Greenville-Weston in the opening round to get back home for the biggest game of the season.
"Playing at home is a huge advantage for any team," Carter said. "We have only had one loss at home this season and for the most part have played really well here. We have an enormous challenge in trying to beat Grenada for a third time. Hopefully, the kids learned from the Madison Central loss when were in a similar position. Everybody plays a little on edge when it is a win-or-go home situation. It is all a matter of matching the intensity. If we can do that, especially playing at home, we should be fine."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter