February 19, 2014 11:45:55 AM
MADISON -- Starkville High School boys basketball coach Greg Carter reached into the cliche grab bag Tuesday night.
"Survive and advance," Carter said. "That is the name of the game when you get to this point in your schedule."
Starkville did that as it sputtered to a 66-58 victory against Northwest Rankin in the opening round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 3 Tournament at Madison Central High.
Starkville (23-3) will face Madison Central (24-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the region tournament championship game. Both of those teams will play an opening-round game in the MHSAA Class 6A North State playoffs Tuesday night.
Madison Central eliminated Columbus 51-39 in another opening-round tournament game late Tuesday night.
"We faced a difficult task because we had beaten (Northwest Rankin) twice by about 40 points during the regular season," Carter said. "Everyone is going to play differently when their entire season is on the line. You can stress that. Sometimes you still aren't prepared for that."
Starkville built an early 10-point lead. However, Northwest Rankin hit long-range 3-pointers to crawl back in the game After a subpar effort on defense, Starkville led 34-31 at halftime.
"Our whole team's identity is on the defensive end," Starkville senior guard Richard Evans said. "We knew if we could ever make some stops it would turn the game around. We finally started doing the things we have been doing all year. Once we got after them a little bit on the defensive end, we were in good shape."
Dontavius Self and Fontavious Smith turned things around for Starkville on offense. Everybody played a hand on defense. Richard Evans and Zeb Rice each drew charging fouls in a stretch of three possessions.
Self scored eight points in a 12-2 run as Starkville built a 54-44 lead early stages in the fourth quarter.
"When you step in there and take a charge, it fires the entire team up," Evans said. "We had a hard time maintaining the focus you have to have for four quarters. However, we did what it takes to win. We will be really ready to play Friday night."
Zeb Rice and Self had 17 points for Starkville. Fontavious Smith added 10.
Cole Gaines led Northwest Rankin (2-22) with 17 points.
Starkville will look for its third victory against Madison Central, which spent a majority of the season as the state's top-ranked team.
"This was a struggle," Self said. "Even though we know we are in the playoffs, we need to come out and play Friday night like our whole season depends on it. It is a very big game."
In the nightcap, Madison Central scored the first eight points and was never in any real danger. Columbus saw a three-game win streak snapped and ended the season 19-8.
"We were beaten by a better team," Columbus coach Sammy Smith said. "They had too much size and speed. When they play at home and play well, they are tough to beat."
Madison Central dunked four times in transition in the first quarter. Still, the Jaguars only led 11-8 after eight minutes. From there, Madison Central's full-court trapping pressure and size took a toll on Columbus.
A 13-2 run quickly ran the advantage to 24-12. Columbus committed 16 first-half turnovers and trailed 28-14 at halftime.
"They sped us up and we didn't handle that real well," Smith said. "We were trying to throw over their pressure and they just grabbed those passes. They really disrupted us in the back court. We would have had to have made a flurry of shots to offset what they were doing on the other end."
Madison Central scored the second half's first eight points and coasted to the victory.
Jay Jay Swanigan led Columbus with 10 points, while Chris Deloach had eight. Xavian Stapleton led Madison Central with 25 points, while D.J. Montgomery added 12.
Despite the loss, Smith took pride in the contributions of seniors C.J. Scott, D.D. Walker, Charles Stacker, Brandon Porter, and Kendall Edwards.
"When C.J. was in ninth grade, they won three games," Smith said. "To come all the way to where they won 19 games, that is an accomplishment. They always did things the right way. They did things the way they were supposed to do. They are kids of great character. That is how I want to build the program.
"I could have gone about doing it another way, but that is not how I want to do it. I want these types of kids. They were what being a student-athlete and playing high school basketball are all about."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter