Columbus High School boys basketball coach Anthony Carlyle, left, and senior Robert Woodard II take a minute to visit during a break in the action against Terry in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A State tournament. Photo by: Chris Todd/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
March 7, 2018 11:14:42 AM
Columbus High School boys basketball coach Anthony Carlyle started preparing for tonight's Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament game against Starkville nine months ago.
"The first couple of week after I took this job, we started talking about Starkville," Carlyle said. "They have a state championship tradition. We played them some in the summer and even then, it was like this is the type of team we want to become. Then we played them early in the regular season and you see how you have progressed.
"All along, we knew winning a state championship would involve beating Starkville."
The Golden Triangle area rivals will meet at 8:30 tonight at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson in the semifinals of the tournament. The winner will play Saturday night for the state championship.
Starkville last won the title in 2015, while Columbus beat Starkville in the championship game to win the 2016 title.
"That makes this fun. No doubt about it," Columbus senior guard Casey Smith said. "Starkville is a big rival. We know the type of team they have. We know the challenge."
Carlyle guided Velma Jackson to three state championships in his final four seasons at the school. He said familiarity with an opponent isn't important in a game where the stakes are so high.
"You are going to face a team that has a detailed scouting report on you, even if you have not played," Carlyle said. "Coaches network and those is so much information on the internet. You want to study up and be prepared, but it's not that big a deal to be facing the same team for a third time in the season."
In the regular season, Columbus took a 64-62 victory at home Nov. 14, while Starkville took a 58-53 win at home Dec. 9.
"The biggest thing you take away from those two games is you are playing a really good team," Columbus senior Robert Woodard II said. "When the playoffs begin, you expect to see Starkville somewhere along the way."
Few teams have entered Mississippi Coliseum hotter.
Columbus is 25-6 with 14-straight wins, while Starkville is 25-3 with 21-straight wins.
"The biggest challenge in Jackson is facing adversity and responding to it," Carlyle said. "More often than not, you have won your region and really breezed through most of your season by the time you get to this point. In the state tournament, you will face adversity. It will come at you in waves.
"The challenge is how do you respond to that adversity. I think the biggest factor is mental toughness. The mentally tough teams will survive and advance when you get to this round."
In the quarterfinals in Jackson, Columbus had to rally for a 41-38 victory against Terry. The matchup mirrored many of the Falcons' games of late, with defense being played on a high level. Columbus entered the state tournament allowing 41 points per game.
Woodard II and Denijay Harris were back in Mississippi Coliseum after helping lead Columbus to the 2016 state championship. Carlyle was back after taking his final gold ball home with Velma Jackson 12 months ago. Smith was back in Jackson after helping lead West Lowndes to two appearances in the Class 1A State tournament.
Carlyle downplays the importance of having experience in Mississippi Coliseum.
"Each year, it's a new team," Carlyle said. "This is the first time this group of players and group of coaches have worked together to try to win a championship. Experience is nice, but it's not a deciding factor. How you respond when the ball is thrown up this time around is what matters. It's a new year and a new group trying to experience a championship."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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