Columbus High School’s Robert Woodard II (12) separates Starkville High’s Jordan Temple (5) from the ball Wednesday in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. Photo by: Chris Todd/Special to The Dispatch
March 8, 2018 9:57:26 AM
JACKSON -- Columbus High School boys basketball coach Anthony Carlyle addressed two numbers in his speech before his team played Starkville at the Mississippi Coliseum.
"Coach told us to play for 32 minutes and to not give up 40 points," Columbus senior Aaron Johnson said. "If we did those two things, everything would take care of itself."
Columbus achieved both goals as it beat Starkville 44-34 Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament.
Columbus (26-6) will face Meridian (32-1) at 8 p.m. Saturday for the state championship.
"Starkville has an outstanding offensive team," Carlyle said. "They shoot the 3-pointer well. Our goal was to hold them under 40 points because no one has done that this year. Contest the 3-point shot and if it is missed, rebound the 3-point shot."
Starkville was 6-for-15 from 3-point range. The taller, wider Columbus squad enjoyed a plus-12 rebounding advantage.
In the regular season, the teams split two meetings. Columbus won 64-62 and Starkville won 58-53.
"There was a lot intensity carrying over from the last time we played," Carlyle said. "There was no way we could let the game get up in the 50s or 60s and win. It's a rivalry, and we lost the last time we played them. That means you have to do something different."
If it was a battle of clashing styles, Columbus held the advantage there, too.
After an up-tempo first quarter, Columbus held a 17-14 lead thanks in large part to two 3-pointers from Casey Smith. Johnson also hit one, which is a good sign because the Falcons are even better when Robert Woodard II isn't the only one scoring.
"When Casey and Aaron both hit shots there in the first quarter, man that just lifted the entire confidence level of the team," Columbus senior Denijay Harris said. "It's a game changer."
In the second quarter, Columbus turned up the defensive pressure. The Falcons forced six turnovers and allowed only two points.
Columbus led 22-16 at halftime.
"That was our quarter," Smith said. "Everybody looks around and you can tell we have that connection on the court. The plan is to take the game over and make things difficult on the other team."
After Harris scored on the first possession of the third quarter, Columbus had an eight-point lead that felt monumental.
"We weren't attacking the zone like we had been," Starkville coach Greg Carter said. "We have been doing a good job of slashing to the goal and passing back out to the shooters on the wings. We didn't do that this game. We weren't aggressive enough offensively, especially against the zone."
Once Columbus had the slight advantage, Woodard II protected it by scoring his team's final five points of the third quarter. A 3-pointer by Starkville's Jamarrion Brown cut the deficit to 31-26 as the quarter expired.
Starkville (25-4) battled back from a 36-28 deficit with back-to-back 3-pointers from Jordan Temple and Ken Rogers.
"That is why we talked about playing for 32 minutes," Carlyle said. "Every game in this tournament will include some adversity. Could not tell you how much we preached playing the entire game and working hard every possession. That's the best way to win in this tournament."
Starkville had possession trailing by two points with less than three minutes remaining. Woodard II and Harris teamed up for the steal and Columbus used a back-breaking 3-point play from Smith in transition to help break Starkville's 21-game winning streak.
"Credit to our kids for battling back," Carter said. "It's a one-score game there at the end, even though we didn't play our best. That's the type of competitive nature this team has shown all year."
Woodard II led Columbus with 15 points, nine rebounds, and two blocked shots. Smith had 11 points.
Rogers had nine points for Starkville, while Brown had eight.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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