Columbus High School senior Robert Woodard II announced a verbal commitment to the Mississippi State basketball program before Tuesday night’s win over Starkville. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 14, 2017 11:29:46 PM
Robert Woodard II handled the first order of business with ease.
With a wave of his hand, the Columbus High School senior unzipped his warmup jacket at 7:20 p.m. and let everyone in the packed gymnasium in on the secret he'd been keeping all day: He was going to be a Mississippi State Bulldog.
Ninety-six minutes after Woodard gave a verbal commitment to MSU, Aaron Johnson officially announced his arrival to the state of Mississippi. In the process, Johnson helped make Woodard's decision even more special.
Johnson hit two free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining to help Columbus rally from a 14-point second-half deficit and earn a 64-62 victory against Starkville.
Woodard had a game-high 21 points to help the Falcons improve to 2-0.
After the game, Woodard sported a long-sleeved, maroon fleece-like top with the MSU logo. He said he decided Monday night between 7-8 that he wanted to go to MSU. Woodard admitted he slept well but still felt "pretty jittery" knowing he had to keep his college choice a secret until the next night.
"I just felt the team was the best fit for me, as well as the coaching staff," Woodard said. "The distance and my dad (Robert) playing there had nothing to do with it."
Woodard, a 6-foot-7 forward, said he had a lot of discussions with his parents about the choice. He said there was a lot of back and forth between MSU, Alabama, and Memphis that forced him to come down to the last minute to make a decision.
"All three teams were like family," Woodard said. "They have been recruiting me for a while. Being around the coaches and their teams you get a bond. It is great to have that feeling around them.
"I just saw a lot of potential with Mississippi State, a lot of great players coming back as well."
Woodard, a four-star recruit, is ranked 36th on ESPN's list of the top 100 players in the Class of 2018. He recently was named to The Clarion-Ledger's Dandy Dozen, which recognizes the state of Mississippi's top players, for a third-straight season.
Woodard joins Reggie Perry, the No. 16 player in ESPN's Top 100 in the Class of 2018, as part of Ben Howland's next recruiting class. He said assistant coach George Brooks and Howland were his primary recruiters.
Johnson, a 6-3 senior guard, transferred from Rowlett High in Texas, which is 20 miles northeast from Dallas, to Columbus in the offseason. Following a timeout with 13.6 seconds remaining, Johnson was fouled when a defender attempted to make a steal on an entry pass. He said he didn't have any doubt he was going to step to the line to make the shots.
"Coach told me I have to knock these down," Johnson said.
Johnson credited the work Columbus coach Anthony Carlyle has done with the Falcons, particularly the shooting worksheets he gives the players, for building his confidence. After Starkville called timeout following the first free throw, Johnson remained calm and drained the second shot.
"I felt like even if he wouldn't have called timeout I would have made it," Johnson said.
Carlyle, who is in his first season at the school after winning four state championships at Velma Jackson High, said the worksheets range from 150-250 shots. He said the players are required to do the shooting before or after practice in an effort to build their games. Carlyle said the players "face the consequences" if they don't do their worksheets.
Denijay Harris had all 19 of his points in the second half. He had two rousing dunks, including one off an assist from Woodard, that energized the crowd and created a buzz in the gym. Harris also had a key finish in the lane and an assist on Johnson's layup with 1 minute, 51 seconds remaining that tied the game at 62. Johnson's steal just inside midcourt led to the tying basket.
"I told (Harris) at halftime I didn't think he did anything for us in the first half, that he was just out there exercising, and that he could go down to the track," Carlyle said. "It was important for us to win that he had to put his footprint on the game in the second half. I thought he responded well."
Starkville (1-2) missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:29 to go. The Yellow Jackets called two timeouts to set up a final inbounds play, but Columbus trapped Jordan Temple at midcourt and prevented the senior guard from getting off a good shot.
Tyler Talley led the Yellow Jackets with 16 points, while Blake Rogers had 15 and Donte Powers had nine. Starkville stayed in the game thanks to 11 3-pointers, but the Yellow Jackets hit only one in the final eight minutes and were outscored 20-6. Starkville also had three costly turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Casey Smith added eight points for Columbus, including a key 3-pointer from the left wing that helped keep the comeback alive.
Starkville coach Greg Carter, who played basketball at MSU, didn't know Woodard was going to pick MSU. Still, he said he had a "pretty good idea" Woodard would choose to play for Howland and join his son, Tyson, who is a sophomore in the program.
"I wish him well," Carter said. "I think he'll do well. It is always great for Mississippi State to get the better in-state talent. He is a talented kid. He is a good kid. He'll work. I think he will get better once he gets there."
Last season, Woodard led Columbus to a 16-13 record and the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament. He averaged 25.2 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and three blocked shots per game. A first-team All-State selection last season, Woodard was a member of the USA Basketball Men's Under-16 National Team.
A member of the National Honor Society and the Mayor's Youth Council in Columbus, Woodard has volunteered locally on behalf of the United Way and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Entering this season, Woodard had a weighted 4.11 grade-point average.
As happy as Carter was for MSU, he was disappointed the Yellow Jackets couldn't finish what they started.
"The fourth quarter we went in the tank," Carter said. "We didn't do anything in the fourth quarter. We didn't handle anything. When we did handle the full-court pressure, we turned it over on the back end or missed open shots. We gave up too many transition points in the fourth quarter and too many free throws."
Carlyle hoped Starkville would miss a few shots to allow his team's defense to hit its stride. He said the Falcons were able to turn up the defensive pressure to force turnovers to get the crowd into the game. Carlyle said Columbus then fed off the energy from the fans to get over the hump on a night filled with drama at the beginning and at the end.
Carlyle said he didn't know which school Woodard was going to pick, although he said he felt "99.9 percent" sure he was going to select MSU. Still, he wasn't sure until Woodard unzipped his warmup. More than ninety minutes later, Carlyle had to sweat out a few more anxious moments to see if the Falcons could complete the comeback.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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