February 17, 2010 8:39:00 AM
Melissa Word wants the ball in the hands of LaPrecious Thompson at the end of the game.
Not only does the Canton High School junior guard have a smooth handle, but she also has a sweet touch from the free-throw line.
Those talents can help a team run valuable time off the clock down the stretch and end an opponent''s chance at a last-minute comeback.
Thompson did both of those things Monday night, showing poise at the point and hitting 5 of 7 free throws in the final 1 minute, 55 seconds to help Canton defeat New Hope 57-52 in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North Half State Tournament.
Canton (13-14) will face Clarksdale, an 84-55 winner Monday against Callaway, on Friday at Gentry in the semifinals.
Kelli Petty had a team-high 14 points to lead four players in double figures for New Hope, which saw its season end at 16-11.
"We never really could get any momentum," New Hope first-year coach Laura Lee Holman said. "Every once in a while we got the momentum going our way, but we never could keep it there. I thought when we tied it at 52 we might have a chance of winning it, but things just didn''t go our way."
Two free throws by Petty tied the game with 2:35 to play. But a costly foul led to Thompson''s go-ahead free throws. The Lady Trojans then took an ill-advised shot on the ensuing possession, missed an offensive rebound putback attempt, and missed the front end of a one-and-one after getting fouled on a second offensive rebound.
Thompson (12 points) made New Hope pay by hitting two more free throws with 54.4 seconds left to push the lead to 56-52.
Petty missed a layup on the Lady Trojans'' next offensive possession. She came up a with a steal on the other end to give her team another chance to cut into the lead, but Rachel Hollivay (13 points, 11 rebounds) missed a 3-pointer.
Canton''s Felicia Washington missed the front end of a one-and-one with 18.7 seconds to go to keep New Hope alive. Unfortunately, D.J. Sanders missed a 3-pointer and Thompson hit 1 of 2 free throws with 2.7 seconds left to seal the deal.
"I think their effort was there, but we are young and we have a lot of growing up to do," Holman said. "Maybe some of these girls have gotten a taste of what the playoffs are all about and what it takes to win a state championship. I hope it makes them hungry and they want it even more."
Word, who made a point to arrive in Columbus about two hours early after a three-hour bus ride, said Thompson sometimes feels the pressure of being the go-to player for the Lady Tigers. But she thought Thompson handled that responsibility well Monday night.
"She is the heartbeat of the team," Word said. "She tries to keep everyone under control, including me."
Word said the Lady Tigers have improved throughout the season. Shaniqua Diamond had 13 of her game-high 15 points in the first quarter, and Veronica Boose also had 12 points to give Canton plenty of scoring options.
The Lady Tigers were able to penetrate the Lady Trojans'' defense and kick out to the wings to open shooters for much of the night.
When she didn''t pass out to her teammates, Thompson also showed a knack for getting her own shot, even though she didn''t capitalize on all of the chances.
Word said she sometimes has to encourage Thompson to be more selfish because her quickness and ballhandling ability make her hard to guard. In fact, she reminded Thompson of that fact several times late in the game after New Hope went to a player-to-player defense to try to get the ball out of Thompson''s hands.
"I am pretty confident (with the ball in Thompson''s hands)," Word said. "We are still trying to instill in her that nine times out of 10 she is the one who is going to be able to make that shot."
Kia Edmonds (13 points) and D.J. Sanders (12) also scored in double figures for New Hope, which had only four players score.
Holman said it will be difficult to lose Petty and Edmonds to graduation, but she hopes her returning players learned important lessons from the program''s first district title in 18 years and its appearance in the North Half State Tournament.
She said those players will have to go through plenty of ballhandling drills to make them better equipped to handle the pressure defenses and to cure the turnover problems that ailed them at times this season.
"I am proud of the girls. They were the third seed in the district tournament and they won it," Holman said. "It has been a fun season. They have made me a better coach. I have only coached 40-something games in my career, and only a few at this level, so I have a lot to learn, too. But you couldn''t ask for a better group of girls. They have accepted me and respected me from day one, and that is hard to find with a young, first-year coach. Anything I have told them to do they have bought into it, and in the end they ran with it. It breaks my heart that we couldn''t come up with a win because they definitely deserved it and worked for it."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.