March 1, 2018 10:47:59 AM
While the Columbus High School boys basketball team is making a return to the Big House after a one-year absence, a handful of Falcons still know their way around Mississippi Coliseum.
Robert Woodard II and Denijay Harris were members of the 2016 Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State championship team. Last season, Casey Smith playing for West Lowndes in a second-straight appearance in Jackson. He, too, has experience playing in the Coliseum from his days as a Panther.
The other Falcons will get their first taste of life in the fast lane when Columbus (24-6) takes on Terry (20-7) at 7 Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A State tournament.
Columbus will need three wins to garner the school's second basketball state championship in three seasons.
"This is what you play for," Woodard II said. "We have been planning for this part of the schedule since the beginning of the year. This team has grown up and matured a lot. We will carry a lot of confidence into the game."
Columbus enters the state tournament on a 13-game winning streak. The Falcons do what first-year coach Anthony Carlyle loves best: play hard-nosed defense.
"I've always thought state championship teams are built on the defensive side," Carlyle said. "You will have off nights on offense, but you can always guard. As long as you play great defense, the shots will eventually fall. There is no reason to not play great defense."
Carlyle also is familiar with the Mississippi Coliseum, having guided Velma Jackson to multiple state championships before taking over the Columbus program last summer.
"It's a new experience," Carlyle said. "There is always a lot of emotion, but you have to make sure that emotion is channeled into energy on the court."
Columbus is allowing 41.1 points per game -- the best total of the eight final teams in Class 6A. Eleven of the last 13 opponents were held to fewer than 40 points. In the Class 6A, Region 2 tournament, Columbus allowed 15 points to South Panola and 25 points to Oxford.
By winning the region tournament, Columbus earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. It needed only a 40-20 home victory against Clinton to reach Jackson.
"We make playing defense fun," Smith said. "It has to be a buy-in from everybody on the floor. To play championship defense, all five players have to be communicating and everyone has to be defending their spot on the floor.
"This the best communication I have ever seen with a team. We believe in one another, and that's really important."
Terry advanced with a pair of Class 6A, Region 6 tournament victories against Pearl and Brandon. In the playoffs, Terry opened with a second-round home win against Petal.
"The best part of the state tournament is seeing some new competition," Smith said. "You face some teams you haven't seen during the regular season. The plan is to make things uncomfortable for the other team. We have had a lot of success doing that this year."
The Columbus-Terry winner will face the winner of the game between Starkville and Harrison Central at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in the semifinals.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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