February 12, 2010 10:04:00 AM
Home-court advantage for the MHSAA North State tournament will be on the line tonight when the area’s Class 6A and 5A girls and boys basketball teams take the court for their district tournament finals.
In Class 6A, the Starkville High girls will take on South Panola at 6 p.m. in the District 4 final at Tupelo High. The Columbus High boys will face Starkville at 7:30 p.m. in the nightcap.
In Class 5A, the New Hope High girls will take on West Point at 6 p.m. at Saltillo High. The New Hope boys will face Oxford at 7:30 p.m. in the second game.
The winners will earn the right to play host to North Half State games Monday or Tuesday, while the losers will go on the road.
For Columbus coach Sammy Smith, the opportunity to face Starkville (23-2) for the third time this season is a daunting challenge considering he feels the Yellow Jackets are one of the state’s top teams.
But Smith said Starkville’s impressive pedigree isn’t going to affect how Columbus (13-11) prepares or what game plan it will try to use.
“The perception is we have to slow the game down, but that is not the biggest factor,” Smith said. “In the last game, we played really, really good defense and Starkville played really good defense. We were shooting the same shots and they were shooting the same shots. Both of our defenses were above each other’s offense.”
Starkville won both of the regular-season meetings, including the second game that didn’t get out of the 40s. Smith hopes his defense can stand pat and be as effective tonight as it was in the second meeting.
If the Falcons play with the same discipline and focus they showed Tuesday in a 62-59 victory against Tupelo, Smith feels good about his team’s chances. He said Columbus was one turnover or one bad shot away from losing to Tupelo, but that the Falcons answered the call and showed they have learned lessons from last year and this season.
“They came out and really executed and did exactly what we set out in our game plan to do,” Smith said. “We were playing really strong basketball. They made a run and tied the game. They played extremely good basketball, but we had the fortitude that three weeks ago we might not have had.”
Smith said Columbus lost a similar game to Starkville last year in the district tournament and to West Lowndes in overtime in its regular-season finale this season. The difference Tuesday, he said, was the Falcons didn’t panic.
"I saw it in their eyes that, 'Hey, coach, we're paying attention to you,'" Smith said. "I hope we’re not satisfied. I think we’re happy about it, but I hope we’re not satisfied. We can accomplish a few more things if the stars align the right way."
Starkville coach Greg Carter’s team will try to prevent any celestial intervention. He said the Yellow Jackets had two good days of practice to prepare for Columbus. It's not that he and his players don’t know what to expect. He said the Yellow Jackets will have to match the Falcons’ intensity and not get frustrated like they did in the second regular-season meeting.
"We definitely took some shots out of frustration (in the second game),” Carter said. “We really defended them well in the fourth quarter. We took the shots we wanted to take and our players stepped up, which made things a lot easier for them.”
Carter expects Columbus to run its deliberate half-court offense and to work the clock until it gets the shot it wants. He said his players will have to be prepared to guard for extended periods, to be physical, and to fight through screens.
“Coach Smith is a master at controlling the pace,” Carter said. “We didn’t shoot it as well and didn’t play well into the fourth quarter, and some of that is due to the defense they were playing. We have to have a defensive mind-set and keep guarding and keep guarding no matter how many passes they make. We can’t have any defensive breakdowns.”
Starkville girls coach Kristie Williams hopes to get the same kind of effort from her team against South Panola. She said the Lady Yellow Jackets lost a one-point decision to South Panola in Starkville in the regular season because they made too many mental mistakes and allowed too many offensive rebounds.
Williams said the Lady Yellow Jackets (16-7) addressed the need to rebound better the past two days in practice. She feels seniors Kala Williams, Shay Bonner, Johniece Moore, Briana Henderson, Ashley Robinson, and Laretha Williams will help convey the urgency of tonight’s game to the rest of the team.
“We all know if we win tomorrow night we have the first round of the North at home Monday, so it is a big plus to play at home for another put-out game,” Williams said. “The players now understand this is the second half of the season, and that in the playoffs you are able to forget what you could have done in the regular season and this is where you put it all together and lay it on the line for 32 minutes.”
Williams gave Starkville a “B plus” for its effort Tuesday in a victory against Tupelo. Even though Tupelo outscored her team 24-14 in the second quarter, Williams said the Lady Yellow Jackets delivered a fine second half. She said her players need to turn in a 32-minute effort tonight if they want another chance to play at home.
“In the second half (against Tupelo) we put our best effort, but we should not have put ourselves in that predicament,” Williams said. “We should be able to play that level of intensity for four quarters.
“If we all show up and play our very best we can win another district championship. They’re hungry and ready, and, hopefully, we can play with a lot of enthusiasm, like we did Tuesday, along with mental toughness and that it will last for 32 minutes.”
Defense also will be a key for the New Hope boys (23-3), who will look to bounce back from a 60-54 loss to Oxford on Jan. 28.
Coach Drew McBrayer said the Trojans will have to defend well, to make the hustle plays, and to execute in the half-court set if they want to win a sixth consecutive district championship.
To do that, McBrayer said New Hope likely will have to grind it out against an opponent that doesn’t have a lot of size but plays hard and isn’t going to beat itself. He feels the fact New Hope lost to Oxford less than three weeks ago will help his players remain focused.
McBrayer also knows his players want to continue the tradition previous classes have established.
“It means a lot for them,” McBrayer said. “With Oxford standing in the way they know they beat us so they better get ready to play. They have been really focused the past two days with the task at hand of keeping the streak of district championships alive. I think they’re ready. Hopefully this weather (snow is in the forecast for Thursday night and this morning) won’t play a part in this or affect our focus.”
First-year coach Laura Lee Holman also will get a chance to meet an opponent for the third time when the Lady Trojans (15-10) face West Point (15-6).
New Hope faced a zone defense and a full-court trapping attack in its two regular-season losses to West Point. She said the Lady Trojans are taking better care of the basketball against pressure defenses, so she feels they will be ready if the Lady Green Wave try to dictate the tempo.
If they are forced to work against a zone, she said guards Kelli Petty and D.J. Sanders, who hit four 3-pointers and had 16 points Tuesday in a victory against Oxford, will have to hit from the perimeter to help open things up for center Rachel Hollivay inside.
The Lady Trojans also will have to contend with a talented West Point backcourt led by junior Kelsei Ewings.
“I think my girls after losing to them twice are a little more motivated and really want to beat West Point,” Holman said. “I think in some ways it might work to our advantage. I think they have the mentality they can beat West Point. Even though they beat (us) twice they don’t seem to be intimidated.”
Holman also feels the players are more focused. She said they seem to be doing
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.