February 19, 2011 10:59:00 PM
HORN LAKE -- The clapping will echo into the offseason.
Columbus High School''s Brelana Coleman stood just inside halfcourt and pounded her hands together after teammate KeKe Patterson was fouled. Patterson was about to hit two free throws to cut a 24-point second-quarter deficit in half midway through the third quarter.
Surely Columbus couldn''t come all the way back and upset Northwest Rankin to earn a berth in the state tournament.
That thought never entered Coleman''s mind. The Columbus High junior''s sole focus was inspiring her teammates to join in the fight and to keep the season alive.
"Let''s go," she said, twisting her face with the intensity of someone who didn''t know the enormity of the task she was asking her teammates to undertake.
The sound will reverberate in the Columbus High gymnasium and everywhere members of the school''s 2010-11 girls basketball team go until this time next season.
It will motivate -- and haunt -- the Lady Falcons to erase the pain they experienced Friday night.
Taylor Beverly had 36 points to lead four players in double figures in Northwest Rankin High''s 85-69 victory in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A North State tournament at Horn Lake High.
Fairley Hornewash had 15 points, Andrea Hollis (14), and Larkeyk Branch (11) also reached double figures to help the Lady Cougars (22-7) earn a spot in the Class 6A State tournament, which starts next week in Jackson.
"They have been in this situation last year," said first-year coach Northwest Rankin coach Angela Reynolds. "They lost the first game in North State, so they had the fire in them. They were ready."
Patterson scored a game game-high 37 points to lead the Lady Falcons (15-6), who were coming off a victory against Southaven on Tuesday and the program''s second district title.
Columbus accomplished more than many expected with only one senior -- point guard Toni Petty -- and a cast of players undersized in stature only. Coleman''s tenacity was just one instance Friday in which Lady Falcons offered the potential for bigger things to come.
Patterson darted through the defense all evening in an attempt to will the Lady Falcons to the victory.
Kameron Corrothers -- all 5-foot-8 1/2 of her -- battled against the taller Beverly, who will play basketball in the fall at the University of Montevallo, and more than held her own, scoring 16 points.
Kierra Erby dove for a loose ball under the Columbus basket with less than a minute to play.
"We just kept believing we could win the ballgame," Columbus High School coach Yvonne Hairston said. "We knew we had to get out and generate some turnovers and get some things to go our way."
The efforts of those three are just a sample of what the Lady Falcons offered after watching the Lady Cougars shoot 11 of 18 in the second quarter and turn a seven-point lead into a 49-29 halftime cushion.
Reynolds said the Lady Cougars'' ability to attack the offensive boards reflected how much the team, which starts all seniors, learned from last season and how it wants to create a championship memory this year.
"Tonight they were a little more aggressive and hungry than they have been," Reynolds said. "
Columbus didn''t hit a field goal in the second quarter until Erby scored on an offensive rebound putback with 23.6 seconds to play. The Lady Falcons had plenty of good looks and several ill-timed shots designed to hit the home run, which would be typical of any inexperienced team playing for a chance to go to the "Big House."
"It just wouldn''t fall and they just couldn''t miss," Hairston said. "They shot the lights out, and No. 32 (Beverly) is really good."
But the Lady Falcons shook that eight minutes and re-focused in the third quarter. They turned up the intensity in the pressure defense and never allowed Northwest Rankin to coast into its matchup Saturday against defending Class 6A state champion Horn Lake.
Instead of folding when the Lady Cougars re-built their lead to 63-36 with 3 minutes, 40 seconds to play in the third quarter, the Lady Falcons challenged themselves. Their hard work triggered an 11-2 run that sliced the deficit to 72-60 after a steal by Patterson and her two free throws with 4:25 to go.
"I learned we had heart and we fought back, but it just wasn''t enough," Patterson said.
Patterson hit jump shots from in close and beyond the arc. Reynolds said the Lady Cougars knew Patterson would get her points and that they did the best they could to contain her.
"She is unstoppable," Reynolds said. "I never have seen anybody who makes as many shots as she does. She is a great kid."
Hairston said the performance validated the heart and character she knows her team possesses. She also credited the fans who traveled nearly three hours to support her team. The applause the fans greeted the players with as they came out of the locker room for the third quarter served as motivation.
"I believed we could win the ballgame even when we were 20 points down, and they believed it, too," Hairston said. "This will just build heart and character, and I think it is going to carry over into our offseason and into next year."
Northwest Rankin''s Santoya Bilbro answered Coleman''s claps in her team''s huddle. The experience the Lady Cougars gained last season in losing to Greenville in the Class 6A North State tournament and falling short of Jackson steeled their resolve, even though the Lady Falcons trimmed their lead to 76-65 with 2:44 to go.
That the lead never dipped under 10 didn''t matter. The fact that Columbus was still pushing in a game that it could have surrendered several times before showed the toughness Hairston knows will serve it well in the offseason and next year.
Patterson said the loss is going to push the Lady Falcons to sacrifice and to get into the gym to do more so they don''t experience the "hurt" she felt after the game.
"This summer we are going to work harder than we ever worked," Patterson said. "We are going to hit the weights and do what we gotta do. Everybody has to be on board because next year at this time we are going to be in the North Half State Championship game. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it."
Hairston said a key will be getting other post players to raise their level of play and to find more scorers who can complement Patterson and Maggie Proffitt, who had only seven points and was a focus of the defense. Coleman also had seven points.
"I am extremely proud of them for how they never gave up and never quit," Hairston said. "They just kept battling and battling."
If the Lady Falcons need any reminders, they can just stop and listen for the echo.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.