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Falcons finding right stride in home stretch

 

Scott Walters

 

 

Most coaches have a firm grasp on their basketball team's identity entering the final weeks of the season. 

 

Coaches know the realistic chances of their teams competing for a state championship. More often than not, a coach can list the character traits of their team. They also know the few extra things that might have to happen to help a team when the games matter the most. 

 

Columbus High School first-year boys basketball coach Anthony Carlyle knows a thing or two about coaching state championship teams. He had those types of teams at Velma Jackson High School. Now, he is trying to get the Falcons back to Jackson. 

 

Carlyle was honest with his assessment of his team when he started practice in October. The often-repeated phrase was "long way to go." You could tell Carlyle was optimistic, but you also could tell he was frustrated that it wasn't coming together at a quicker pace. 

 

Carlyle remains optimistic, but his message has changed. 

 

"We are playing really well," Carlyle said. "The key is to keep that up. We just have to come to practice every day and approach games the same way. We just have to stay in our routine and keep doing what we have been doing." 

 

Columbus enters the final three games of the regular season (tonight at South Panola, Monday at Oxford, and Thursday at West Lowndes) with at 17-6 and a 4-0 in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 play. 

 

Columbus has won six-straight games and 10 of its last 12. During the current winning streak, the Falcons are winning by an average margin of 18.5 points per game. 

 

All three region rivals (Tupelo, South Panola, and Oxford) are extremely young. The balance of power in this region has a chance to shift next season since Columbus is a senior-heavy squad. 

 

That doesn't diminish the quality of Columbus' play. 

 

Robert Woodward II remains the state's best player. The 6-foot-7 Mississippi State signee is still terrorizing opponents like he has done for four years. What is undervalued in Woodard II's game is his leadership abilities. While there are a lot of seniors to share the leadership mantle, one doesn't need to lose sight of what Woodard II does for this team off the court. 

 

The rest of the starting lineup is all seniors -- Denijay Harris, Aaron Johnson, R.J. DeLoach and Casey Smith. 

 

DeLoach, Johnson and Smith are transfers. Harris and Woodard II were the top players last season on Columbus High's 16-11 squad. 

 

Harris knew early on this year had a chance to be different. 

 

"Just a lot of patience," Harris said. "I knew we had some really talented players. You just can't step on the court and it happen instantly. After some of the frustrations of last season, it was good to know this team was going to be in a different place. If everybody was willing to work, we were going to have a special season." 

 

A year ago, the challenge centered on finding additional offensive help for Woodard II. Harris was the only other Falcon to score on a consistent basis. 

 

This season, it remains Woodard II's show, but you have most nights where No. 2 in the scoring column could fall to Harris, Smith, or Johnson. 

 

From a coaching standpoint, Carlyle has taken different a approach. When Luther Riley led Columbus to the state championship in Woodard's sophomore season, the team played an up-tempo style and built its success on good offensive nights. 

 

This team probably still could run and gun with most teams and score its fair share of points. However, Carlyle wants a state championship won on the defensive end. 

 

Columbus has held all six opponents in the winning steak to 42 or fewer points. 

 

"With coach Carlyle, defense is an obsession," Harris said. 

 

It is hard to blend a bunch of newcomers into a well-oiled machine. It's hard to talk offensively talented players into selling their soul on the defensive end. 

 

Carlyle has achieved both goals. 

 

To the casual observer, games in the 30s and 40s might not sound like much fun to watch. However, Columbus plays a defensive-oriented style that is fun to watch. 

 

Woodard II alone is worth the price of admission. 

 

Class 6A doesn't have a favorite to win the state championship. However, when Columbus plays like it did Tuesday in dismantling Tupelo, it is going to be hard to beat. 

 

Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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