March 2, 2011 9:27:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Few people expected the Starkville High School boys basketball team to make it back to Jackson.
Without two standout players from last season''s Class 6A state title and Grand Slam championship squad, Starkville had a mountain to climb if it hoped to repeat as champs.
At least it faces familiar foe to get to the summit.
At 8 tonight, Starkville (19-8) will take on top-ranked Meridian, the team it beat in the state final last season, in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A semifinal at Mississippi Coliseum.
Meridian, which beat Starkville 70-59 in the second game of the regular season, has won 10 consecutive games and enters the Final Four as South State champion.
"We''ve all been waiting for this test against Meridian," Starkville junior guard Mike Brand said. "Nobody expects us to win, but we''re ready to do something special."
That Starkville reached Jackson is special considering it played the district tournament final and the North State tournament without center Gavin Ware, who strained knee ligaments and damaged cartilage against Columbus in the district opener.
Ware won''t play today or at 8:30 p.m. Saturday if the Yellow Jackets advance to the final.
The 6-foot-8 forward will be missed, but Starkville coach Greg Carter is confident Chris Harris and Tory Rice can provide enough inside play to bang with 6-foot-6 forward Sidney Coleman, who is more of a defensive threat and rebounder than he is a scorer.
Coleman wasn''t a factor in last season''s state final, scoring only four points.
Rodney Hood will garner most of the Yellow Jackets'' attention on defense. The 6-foot-7 wing player has become more aggressive going to the basket with either hand and has improved his jump shot.
The Mississippi State signee is a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, and Carter feels last year''s defensive tactics won''t work tonight.
"Last year, what worked was pressuring him hard and staying into him when he puts the ball on the floor," Carter said of Hood. "This year, it didn''t work quite so well. You have to have a combo of that and denying him the ball. A combination of the two is probably the best way to go."
Though Carter is concerned about the matchup with Hood, he admits Meridian''s well-rounded lineup is a bigger challenge. He lauded the chemistry and scoring ability of the Wildcats'' starting five and their eight seniors. Brothers Marcus and Matthew Hurn each are double-digit scorers.
Carter said emphasis ball movement will help his team keep pace with the Wildcats.
"We''ve got to be able to get a good shot every time down the court," Carter said. "We''ll have fast-break points, but we''ve got to score in the half court. They''re a team that''s gonna score a lot of points. They''ve got weapons, and it puts pressure on us to score. We have to make the right pass."
Jacolby Mobley will be at the center of Starkville''s ball movement. The junior, who leads the team in scoring at 18 points per game, missed a trip to Jackson last season after sitting the second semester due to lagging grades. He began last season as the team''s third-leading scorer with 14 ppg. and gave Carter a perfect ballhandling / scoring combination with Edward Townsel. Rashad Perkins provided the scoring and athleticism that sparked the team''s title haul.
After watching his teammates hoist the trophy last season, Mobley vowed not to let grades be an issue in the future. He also made a promise to his teammates.
"I let my team down, so I promised them I would do everything I could to make sure we got back to Jackson," Mobley said. "It feels very good we''re down there again and ready to win another one."
Mobley is looking forward to his debut in the "Big House", where he hopes to see the same spirited play that helped the Yellow Jackets get there. He believes the team''s experience and style of play rivals Meridian.
"I can''t take nothing away from Meridian because they are a great team," Mobley said. "But the team effort and bond with our team is just like it was last year. We only lost two people, and we''ve all been playing together since the seventh and eighth grade. A team effort is the best effort we''ve got."