January 24, 2018 9:33:55 AM
TUPELO -- When she is on the court, Columbus High School freshman D.J. Jackson is working hard with her teammates to try to find a way to win a game.
Away from the court, Jackson feels slightly overwhelmed by what is going on in her young life.
"I think about being out there when the game is on the line and being one of the players everybody is looking to," Jackson said. "I also find that it is exciting because I have three more years to be able to do this."
Jackson provided the defense and junior Hannah White provided the offense as Columbus finished the game with a 21-3 run to beat Tupelo 51-46 in a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 game.
"We simply stole one," Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said. "There is no other way to say it. This may be the happiest I have ever been for a basketball team. That is just an unreal comeback."
While the regular season holds little meaning, since the region tournament decides all of the playoff participants, one could not diminish the enthusiasm that erupted from the Columbus bench in the closing seconds.
While several players swore they never lost a belief, there were more than enough reason to have doubts.
"This is a basketball team," White said. "As long as there is time remaining, we think we have a chance to win the game. We go to eat together. We go to each other's houses. You just have to believe in one another. All of the glory goes to God. We take His presence with us and we just believe in each other. We believe in what we are doing."
Columbus (13-5, 2-1 region) also believes in the full-court press. After a difficult start to the second half, the Lady Falcons trimmed a 12-point deficit to three in before allowing five points in the final 13 seconds of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Columbus trailed 43-30 with 6 minutes, 45 seconds left. Hairston again applied the pressure. This time, it needed to be even better. It was.
"Our full-court pressure defense has been great this season," Hairston said. "We have size and length and we have just gotten a bunch of turnovers. Even if we don't score, we are denying the other team a chance to score. It's just a buy-in and everybody playing their role."
In a region loss to South Panola, Columbus led most of the game before letting the lead slip away in the final minute. In a region victory against Oxford on Friday night, Columbus used its defense to break open a tight game with a 14-2 run. That paled in comparison to the 11-2 and 21-3 runs Tuesday night.
However, one similarity was the defensive brilliance of Jackson. She had three-straight steals to start the run against Oxford. Against Tupelo, she had three steals, a tie-up, and a critical basket in the lane to pull her team within one point with 1:45 left.
"Only a freshman, just think about that," Hairston said.
Jackson is aware of her age. She doesn't have a driver's license. She does have a love for the game.
"I really don't get caught up in the emotions of the game," Jackson said. "I just try to make plays. We are pretty good on defense. My job isn't to score. It's to cause problems on the defensive end. I am good with that. To be out there (as a freshman), well it gets your adrenaline going."
White is the undisputed offensive leader of the team. She had 30 points, 11 rebounds, and five steals in the win. Against Oxford, White had 24 points, including a stretch of 11-straight points.
While Columbus most likely will need more offensive help to make a deep run in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs, White and a smothering defense has been enough for a three-way tie for first place in the region race at the halfway mark of the schedule.
"Just keep attacking," White said. "The coaches are always encouraging. They just tell me to keep attacking. Find my shot, but don't do anything that will hurt the team's chances at winning. We have come a long way. We really believe we can compete with anybody."
White scored the go-ahead points at the free-throw line with 22 seconds left. After a miss on the other end, she grabbed the rebound, drew the foul, and hit two more free throws. Then a steal and layup and gave her the game's final six points.
A massive celebration then erupted as Columbus felt like it won far more than one game.
"We have talked all year about how young this team is," Hairston said. "The most remarkable thing about this team is its confidence level. It never gets down. After a bad play, it's always on to the next one. You preach that all of the time as a coach. However, that is the hardest thing for a young team to learn. Don't get down. Keep going. Keep pushing. After one bad play, make a good play."
On a team with no seniors, White feels like this squad has a high ceiling. Wins like the one it earned Tuesday give the team a confidence level to match.
"Every time we leave the locker room, we think we are going to win," White said. "I have seen other teams where that is not the case. If you can't believe you can do something, you won't do it, so we are ahead of the game before we take the court."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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