February 7, 2013 11:03:32 AM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville Academy boys basketball coach Mark Alexander likes his team's chance in a close game.
Starkville Academy once again proved calm under pressure Tuesday night as it defeated Heritage Academy 46-40 in another down-to-the-wire game.
"Pretty much all of our wins have been close games this year," Starkville Academy junior Caleb Merchant said. "When it comes down to a close game in the end, we know how to win. We were ready to be in this situation."
A week ago, Starkville Academy won 56-49 in double overtime in Columbus. After playing each of the final two Tuesdays of the regular season, a third meeting will be next week in the Mississippi Association of Independent Class AAA, Division II tournament at Hillcrest Christian. The time and date will be determined this weekend.
"We have to play them again in the tournament, so we have to be careful because it is hard to beat the same team three times in a row," Starkville Academy senior Carnail Minor said. "We will have to really come out and play in that game. We will need to take it over earlier."
In the initial game, the Volunteers scored at the end of regulation and later won with a 7-0 advantage in the second overtime. On Tuesday, Starkville Academy broke a 40-40 tie by scoring the final six points in the last 1 minute, 45 seconds.
"Same song, second verse," Alexander said. "The only difference from last week was that we didn't go into double overtime. Again, it was a situation where neither team deserved to lose the game. Both of us fought hard. We were fortunate to make a few more shots.
It was nip-and-tuck throughout. The Volunteers (15-13) let the Patriots (13-17) hang around, thanks in part to an 11-of-24 night at the free-throw line. Starkville Academy did another masterful job of taking care of the ball and also made 16 of 28 shots from the field.
Starkville Academy also won without the services of junior Bradley Weseli, a starter who missed the contest due to illness.
"We both know we are going to see each other next week, so both teams were a little vanilla," Heritage Academy coach Gary Harris said. "We had a chance to win the game late. We had some opportunities we let get away from us. We didn't hustle after a loose ball in the corner. We didn't take a charge when we had the opportunity. Those are the kinds of things that we have got to do to win games like this. (Starkville Academy)'s guards do such a great job of putting pressure on you. They step over, play good defense, and will hurt you. We have to be better defensively when we play again."
Starkville Academy used a 6-0 run in the early stages of the second quarter to build a 17-10 advantage. That lead matched the largest advantage for either team in either game. Behind the 3-point shooting of Heritage Academy's Hudson Bean, the Patriots fought back. Parker Dunaway also added a 3-pointer for the Patriots, and David Hardy's made it 21-all at halftime.
"We play like a different team in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter," Alexander said. "It is those extra hustle plays that we make. The goal at the beginning of the season was a winning season. They haven't done that here in five or six years. This was a major step toward reaching that goal.
"We play close games night in and night out and that gives us a huge advantage in the fourth quarter."
The lead switched hands four times before the Volunteers scored the final six points of the third quarter for a 36-30 advantage.
Again, Bean started the comeback with another trey. When Walker Brown hit a 3-pointer from the corner, Heritage Academy led 38-37 lead with 3:45 left.
"In the fourth quarter, we had to come out and play," Minor said. "We have been in this situations so many times. Really, a game like that doesn't mean anything until the fourth quarter."
That meant the Volunteers had the Patriots right where they wanted. A 3-pointer by Minor gave the Volunteers a 40-38 lead. After Cade Lott tied a game with a putback, the Patriots missed their final seven shots from the field and also were called for a charging foul.
"Whenever we do something good, we feel like we can win games," Merchant said. "We have won a lot more games than we did last year. You can tell our confidence is way up. That is the difference at the end of games. We just have so much more confidence."
With 1:45 left, point guard Brandon Sharp drew a foul from the mid-court pressure. Sharp hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the hosts the lead for good. After the charge on the other end, Minor converted a critical putback. Sharp hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal the win.
"Brandon is really great in critical situations," Alexander said. "I like our chances when the ball is in his hands."
Sharp paced Starkville Academy with 15 points, while Minor added 11 points and Merchant had 10. Lott and Bean led Heritage Academy with nine.
In the opener, the top-ranked Starkville Academy girls moved to 33-0 with a 74-36 victory.
Starkville Academy scored the first six points en route to a 31-4 lead after one quarter.
Tiffany Huddleston led Starkville Academy with 16 points, sis steals, and two assists. Maggie Proffitt added 14 points and six rebounds, Anna Lea Little had 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocked shots, Nora Kathryn Carroll had 10 points, Sallie Kate Richardson had eight points, seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals, and Janiece Pigg had eight points and six rebounds.
Mary Douglas Kerby led Heritage Academy with nine points.
Starkville Academy will play host to Jackson Academy on Friday in its regular-season finale. Heritage Academy will wait for the district playoffs.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter