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Defense sends Falcons back to title game


Scott Walters



JACKSON -- Columbus High School senior Robert Woodard II has no problem being on a defensive-minded basketball team. 


"There are two teams left and we are one of them," Woodard said. "It doesn't matter how you get to this point. It just matters that you have gotten to this point. We just have to come out and play our game, our style one more time." 


Columbus will play for its second state championship in three seasons after a 44-34 victory against Starkville in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament on Wednesday night at Mississippi Coliseum. 


Columbus (26-6) will face Meridian (32-1) at 8 p.m. Saturday for the title. 


Starkville coach Greg Carter has built a state championship program thanks in large part to sharing the basketball and stellar defense. 


In a battle of wills, the Columbus defense stood tallest. 


"There are going to be stretches where it doesn't really look like there is a lot going on in a game," Columbus senior Casey Smith. "We call feel it on the bench, when we are starting to take over a game." 


That takeover took place in the second quarter, when Columbus held Starkville to two points after scoring 14 in the opening quarter. 


An up-tempo, offensive-oriented game turned into a defensive stalemate in minutes. 


Columbus entered the state tournament allowing 41 points per game. In state tournament victories against Terry and Starkville, it has allowed 38 and 34. 


"There is no excuse to not play great defense," Columbus coach Anthony Carlyle said. "Some nights, your shots aren't going to fall. Defending and rebounding, you can do that every time out. When we go through the scouting report for a game, we talk about offensive tendencies of the other team. We have goals we want to hit on the defensive end of the floor." 


With the scoring ability of Woodard II and rebounding ability of Denijay Harris, a slight lead for Columbus feels much larger. 


"Our goal is to make the other team totally miserable," Harris said. "You can tell when they are getting frustrated and running out of things to try." 


Carlyle said the size and length of his starting lineup and his squad's overall team speed make this style of play a natural. 


"You need to find that one area you are great at and then try to become exceptional at it," Carlyle said. 


Both team had the same number of field goal attempts (31), but Columbus made four more (16 compared to 12) and shot five more free throws (11 to six). The Falcons also had a 12-rebound advantage. 


"Never could have imagined (we would be playing for a state championship)," Columbus senior Aaron Johnson said. "It's pretty remarkable that all of this has happened. We make playing defense fun, and I don't think we really have to apologize for that." 


Columbus averaged 65.7 points per game during the 2016 state championship run. This season's squad is checking in at 10 points less per game. 


"It's certainly different, but I don't think anybody can complain about the results," Woodard said. "The season is one long grind, and we have made it to the final day. Two years ago, I know what that felt like. To experience it again in your senior season, it's great. It shows all of the hard work has paid off." 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott


Scott is sports copy editor and reporter


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