March 5, 2014 11:43:49 AM
Don't let the record fool you.
Roosevelt Bridges knows an 11-11 record won't strike fear into the hearts of any opponents. But the West Lowndes High School boys basketball coach realizes eight of those losses came to larger classification schools.
Once he took over as coach and the Panthers hit the new year, things changed. A faster, pressing style of play combined with the addition of eighth-grader C.J. Smith Jr. has helped West Lowndes forget about an 0-7 start to the season.
At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, West Lowndes will try to extend its season when it takes on Shaw in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A state tournament at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. It will be West Lowndes' first trip to the state tournament since 2009.
West Lowndes secured a spot in the state tournament with a 66-59 victory against Sebastopol in the North State tournament. Hinds Agricultural High beat West Lowndes 76-48 to earn the North State title and a top seed for the state tournament. It will take on Coldwater at 8 p.m. Friday in the other semifinal. The teams will meet at a time and a date to be determined.
"I wanted to play the big schools because you learn a lot from them," said Bridges, who started the season as the school's girls basketball coach before taking over as coach for Rickie Hill. Derrick Lucious and Simeon Weatherby are assistant coaches. Bridges also is the school's athletic director. "We got banged up and pushed around. When we got ready to play district ball, we were really ready to play district ball."
West Lowndes lost twice to Columbus, New Hope, Noxubee County, and Aliceville (Ala.). East Oktibbeha earned five- and nine-point victories against West Lowndes in the regular season, but East Oktibbeha and West Oktibbeha were ineligible to play in the Region 5 tournament due to the school lost its accreditation. As a result, West Lowndes only had to win one game to win the region title.
Bridges said his team has embraced a faster style of play that he feels helps it play against bigger and smaller schools. After working with the junior high team, Bridges realized very quickly Smith would be an option at some point this season for the varsity team. He said he has provided a steady influence at point guard.
"He can shoot the ball and he is well-coached," Bridges said. "Thanks to his mom and dad. They have worked a lot with him. He is an outstanding ballplayer. Without him, I don't think we would be where we are today."
Bridges understands that is a big weight to put on the shoulders of someone who isn't in high school. Still, he said Smith proved to his teammates he could play at the varsity level. He cemented that respect by helping to bring the team together.
Co-captain Jeremy McGee is one of four seniors on the team. He said Smith has been a key ingredient that has pushed the Panthers to "the Big House." Smith joined the varsity team in January after playing with the junior high team at the start of the season.
"He is like a little brother to me," McGee said. "He brought a lot of talent to the team. We needed him. He is a good point guard.
"We used to be sort of a selfish team. He helped us move the ball around and pass the ball around and to trust each other with the ball."
Smith said Bridges told him the Panthers needed him to take them somewhere. He smiled when told he has had a big impact on the team. He credits his teammates for believing in him and making him feel comfortable.
"It touched me," Smith said of his teammates' believing in him. "I kept my head on straight and am not getting a big head."
Bridges praised the players for recovering from a slow start and accepting his style of play. He said he wasn't sure that would happen, but he is proud of the Panthers for believing in what they could accomplish.
"The boys were to the point that they didn't care," Bridges said of the state of the team when he took over. "It was my job and try to uplift them and to make them believe that we still have a good chance because we hadn't started district ball. When we started to play district ball, we started winning.
"They were to the point they wanted to give up. With the help of my assistant coaches, we put the pressure on the boys and kept telling them to believe in us and we will take you somewhere. I ran off a couple, but the rest of them stuck with me and that is why we are going to Jackson."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.