March 5, 2010 9:59:00 AM
CLINTON -- For the second straight year, East Mississippi Community College will be represented in the NJCAA Division I Basketball Championship.
Last year the EMCC women made it to the national tournament and this year it''s the men''s turn.
The 12th-ranked EMCC Lions punched their ticket to the national tournament Thursday by beating Itawamba Community College 78-64 in the championship game of the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus.
EMCC (26-5) will represent District 15 in the national tournament, set for March 16-20 at the Sports Arena in Hutchinson, Kan. It will be East Mississippi''s first-ever national tournament appearance in men''s basketball.
A year ago in Salina, Kan., coach Sharon Thompson''s Lady Lions earned the first national tourney berth since finishing as national runners-up in 1978.
The Lions won the region championship after bouncing back from a 61-58 loss to Pearl River Community College in the MACJC State Tournament in Scooba a week ago Thursday.
EMCC won three-straight days to claim the region championshp. After posting an 86-79 first-round victory against Northeast Mississippi Community College, the Lions advanced to the title game by beating Hinds Community College81-74 in overtime Wednesday.
After trailing 14-6 eight minutes into the championship game, the Lions scored eight unanswered points to even the score 14-14. They took control from there and went on to lead 38-25 at halftime.
Freshman guard Deonte Alexander led the way in the opening half with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
Following a nine-point effort in the first half, CoCo Ware took a hard spill at the 17:46 mark of the second half while driving to the basket. After nearly turning a complete flip in midair while drawing a blocking foul, Ware landed awkwardly on his right side. He sstayed in the game to convert his free throws, but came out at the next stop in action and proceeded straight to the locker room.
After being evaluated, Ware re-entered the contest at the 12:21 mark. He went on to tally 10 second-half points, including 6-of-7 shooting from the line, to lead EMCC with 19 points.
Selected to the all-tournament team, Ware scored 80 points in the three games.
Despite having their lead cut to seven points on four occasions during the second half, the Lions'' advantage was never seriously challenged the final 20 minutes even with Ware out of the game. With the Indians being held to 38-percent shooting from the field, EMCC took advantage of aggressive drives to the basket and was able to pad the margin at the charity stripe. In the second half alone, the Lions converted on 23-of-35 free throws after earning just three trips to the line in the opening period.
Also picked to the all-tournament team, Alexander finished the title game with 17 points on 6-of-10 field-goal shooting. With his third double figure-scoring effort in the last four games while coming off the bench, freshman forward Richard Dixon followed with 12 points.
Having gone undefeated against Itawamba in their two-year East Mississippi careers, sophomores Terence Bennett and John Harris scored 10 points each.
Itawamba (20-10) was led by Melvin Morgan with 13 points.