November 3, 2013 12:09:35 AM
SCOOBA -- East Mississippi Community College sophomore defensive back A.J. Stamps knew the right time to make a really big play Saturday afternoon.
With his team protecting a three-point lead in the third quarter, Stamps made the game's biggest defensive play with an interception in the end zone.
The play was one of four second-half turnovers the Lions forced. Each proved critical as No. 2 EMCC pulled away for a 45-28 victory against No. 5 Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. in a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges semifinal-round game at Sullivan-Windham Field.
EMCC (10-0) will face No. 4 Jones Junior College (9-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday in Scooba for the state championship. Jones J.C. beat Itawamba C.C. 49-21.
Stamps' big play came after he was inadvertently hit by a punt that Mississippi Gulf Coast recovered on the EMCC 36-yard line. The Bulldogs moved to the 16 and were poised to take the lead before Stamps' interception.
"I made a big mistake on the punt return by touching the ball," Stamps said. "Our return man C.J. Bates was pointing at the ball, but I couldn't find it. I knew I had to make a big play after that because I had let my team down."
When pushed to the brink, EMCC responded like a champion after trailing in a game for the first time this season. Against its first ranked opponent of the season, EMCC did what it does best when the going was tough: It turned to a lights-out defense. EMCC had interceptions by Stamps, Laderrick Roberts, and Allen Sentimore in the second half. On another possession, D.J. Pettway tracked down quarterback Colton Kane for his third sack and forced a fumble. Jarran Reed made the recovery.
Mississippi Gulf Coast was held to 316 yards, including 23 yards in the third quarter when EMCC turned a 14-7 halftime deficit into a 17-14 lead. Mississippi Gulf Coast back Antwon Wells, the state's leading rusher, was held to a season-low 62 yards on 23 carries.
"The defense was amazing," EMCC sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas said. "The offense got it in gear late, but the story was the defense. We got some amazing players on that side of the ball. They really came to do battle today. Gulf Coast has a good team, and our defense made them look like they didn't."
The game played out incredibly similar to 2011 when EMCC beat Mississippi Gulf Coast 42-17 in the state championship game. In that game, EMCC trailed 10-7 at halftime. In the second half of that game, the defense rose to the occasion and Mississippi Gulf Coast wilted at the prospect of making stop after stop against EMCC's offense.
"I told the guys I really don't like it when they make me talk to them like that," said EMCC coach Buddy Stephens, when asked the basics of his halftime speech. "These are the grown men, so they know what is stake and they know how they need to be playing. Now that we are in the playoffs, it is not about style points and rankings and all of that. It is simply about the scoreboard and making sure you are on the right end of it when the game ends."
Regardless of the content, the halftime speech worked.
EMCC took the first possession of the second half 60 yards on seven plays for the game-tying points. Dontreal Pruitt appeared tight in the first half and had some uncharacteristic overthrows. On this drive, Pruitt hit Brandon Bell for a big pickup and Justin Mack for a 22-yard touchdown.
The only two Gulf Coast punts of the afternoon took place after the first two possessions of the second half. Even though EMCC punted right back, one could sense the momentum was turning and that the EMCC defense was in attack mode.
On the next possession, Roberts made an interception in front of the EMCC sidelines. Making a diving grab and staying in bounds, Roberts set his offensive mates up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast 33.
EMCC took that turnover and moved it to the Mississippi Gulf Coast 10 before Drew White kicked a go-ahead 27-yard field goal.
Stamps' interception followed. This time, the Lions moved 80 yards on 12 plays. Pruitt hit Bell for two completions, Mack for one, and Brandon Acker for another. Pruitt capped the drive with a 1-yard run for a 24-14 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
EMCC finished with 467 total yards, including 296 in the second half. The Lions ran 79 offensive plays and garnered 23 first downs. The only turnover was on the punt Stamps backed into.
"Once it gets rolling, there is no stopping the offense," said EMCC freshman wide receiver C.J. Bates, who led the team with six receptions for 104 yards. Mack also had six receptions for 100 yards. "Other teams come in here and get a little intimidated when they realize they have to stop us for four quarters."
EMCC scored 28 fourth-quarter points and eased to its fifth victory in state playoff history. Pruitt threw four touchdown passes and leads the nation with 40. Thomas capped a 100-yard rushing performance (16 rushes, 119 yards) with a touchdown in the closing minutes.
"We had a lot of fun today," Thomas said. "You dream about playing in games like this one. We are going to come back out here next Saturday and have some more fun. We plan to take something home with us when that one ends."
n Jones J.C. 49, ICC 21: At Ellisville, the Indians had six turnovers, including three interceptions returned for scores in the first quarter, in their state semifinals-round loss to the Bobcats.
Jamal Lewis returned interceptions 87 and 53 yards for touchdowns, and Charles Lewis added a 25-yard interception return for a score to help the Bobcats build a 28-0 lead in the first quarter.
Tobias Lofton, of Forest, scored on a 1-yard run before Jeff Johnson, of Southaven, recovered a fumble in the end zone for a score. Anfernee Brand, of Houston, added a 29-yard touchdown in the season-ending loss for the Indians.
Chase Watson, of Saltillo, was 15 of 32 for 98 yards and two interceptions, while Griff Loftis, of Mooreville, was 4 of 11 for 71 yards and three interceptions.
Lofton had 31 carries for 91 yards. Brand had five carries for 37 yards.
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter