February 24, 2014 12:38:13 PM
Sharon Thompson felt like her East Mississippi Community College women's basketball coach had potential even though it had plenty of youth.
With so many first-year players in key roles, the struggles were expected. Sitting at 6-6 after a one-sided loss at Mississippi Delta C.C., the season could have gone in one of two directions in early January.
Fortunately for Thompson, her original designs materialized. EMCC (16-7, 11-1 North Division) won 10 of its final 11 games to earn a third North Division title in the past six seasons.
Now thoughts have turned to winning a state championship.
The quest for another title will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday when EMCC faces Southwest Mississippi C.C. in the opening-round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges State Tournament at Itawamba C.C.'s Davis Event Center in Fulton.
The 16-team, four-day event begins today with four first-round men's games. EMCC (17-5, 8-3 North Division) will face Pearl River C.C. at 3 p.m. today.
"We felt we really looked good coming out of summer workouts," Thompson said. "We had a couple of injuries that set us back the year before. We knew didn't have a lot of sophomores, but that we really had some strong leadership.
"The main thing is winning some games early. We won some tight games, and I think that really helped from a confidence standpoint."
As one of the state's two division champions in the regular season, the EMCC women are virtually assured a spot in the Region XXIII tournament, where it last competed in 2011. The state tournament will provide an opportunity to enhance seeding for that event.
"Our defensive play has really been great the last month of the season," Thompson said. "We have played some tight games and the girls have had some experience in critical situations. After the win at Itawamba (74-70 in double overtime), we knew then we had a legitimate shot to win the division. The girls worked really hard to make sure that happen."
Sophomore Takera Mitchell leads EMCC at 12.2 points per game. Savannah Kimmons follows with 8.8 ppg., while former West Point standout Wilma Davis is averaging 8.3 ppg.
The Lady Lions are allowing 48.6 points per game.
EMCC swept ICC, winning 78-76 a week ago in Scooba. The second victory gave EMCC the division title by one game over ICC. The Lady Lions avenged the loss to Mississippi Delta a month later with a 10-point win in Scooba.
On the men's side, the North Division regular season race was one to remember. ICC edged EMCC by a half-game to win the title. EMCC had a regular-season game with Holmes C.C. suspended. It wasn't completed because it didn't impact the division tie-breaking process.
For ICC second-year coach Grant Pate, the division title was more important than usual since the North Division men's champion earned a chance to play host to this year's state tournament.
"We survived a marathon with East Mississippi and Northwest for the division title," Pate said. "We feel really great about hosting the state tournament because there will be some really great basketball played on our campus this week."
ICC appears headed to the Region XXIII tournament. EMCC has won four straight Region XXIII championships, but it will need a push this week to enhance its chances at a fifth title.
In the regular season, ICC beat EMCC 107-103 in double overtime in Fulton, only to fall 85-51 in Scooba. It appeared EMCC would win to play host to the event in Scooba, but the Lion lost to Northwest Mississippi four days later to end a six-game winning streak.
"We have five or six teams that could go on and win the region championship," Pate said. "That is what makes it fun this time of year. You play great opponents each night."
Jones Junior College secured the top seeds for the men and women from the South Division.
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter