Starkville High School’s Tabreea Gandy (10) drives around Pearl’s Ashlyn Horne (23) Wednesday night in their game at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. Photo by: Chris Todd/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
March 8, 2018 9:58:37 AM
JACKSON -- When Starkville High School senior Jariyah Covington looks around the court, she sees confidence in the eyes of her teammates.
"We feel like we have been here before," Covington said. "You just have a lot of confidence when you have played here and had success here. It makes you feel like you can do anything. We had to have that confidence in the third quarter."
That confidence was badly needed in the second half Wednesday in a 60-51 victory against Pearl in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State tournament at Mississippi Coliseum.
Starkville (27-2) will face Murrah (30-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday for the state championship.
With the teams tied at 34 early in the third quarter, Starkville reeled off a 12-0 run in 105 seconds.
"It just feels great when you look out there and you see players who have fought through the battles," Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. "It really doesn't matter who is going to settle the team down. You just have a good feeling that someone will step up, calm everybody down, and get us going."
Starkville is making its second-consecutive appearance in the state championship game thanks in large part to stellar defense. The Lady Jackets have grown accustomed to knowing when to throw that switch.
"Everybody came together there in the third quarter and we put the game away," Starkville senior center Kirsten Thompson said. "You can tell when the other team is deflated. We sped them up and they started rushing some shots. When you know your season might be coming to an end, it's human nature to get a little panicked. I knew then we could win the game."
A year ago, Starkville lost to Olive Branch in the state championship game. The MHSAA vacated that title because Olive Branch played an ineligible player. Starkville was declared the champion roughly six months after the game.
While any championship is sweet, Williams has encouraged her players to win this year's championship on the court.
"We want to win the championship outright," Starkville senior guard Tabreea Gandy said. "We wanted to be the last team on the court holding the gold ball. Last year was great, but this year, it will mean so much more."
Starkville appeared ready to make quick work of Pearl (30-3). In the first two minutes, the Lady Yellow Jackets forced the Lady Pirates into six turnovers to take a 6-0 lead, but it felt like it could be so much more.
When Covington scored on the initial possession of the second quarter, Starkville led
Pearl battled back from 3-point range. After a prolonged struggle in the first quarter, Pearl came alive for 24 second-quarter points (half of them from 3-point range).
"We knew Pearl was a good 3-point shooting team," Williams said. "That was the biggest concern. We lost our man defensively a couple of times in the second quarter. The biggest thing is to keep playing. There will be adversity, ups and downs. The main thing is to keep playing."
Starkville did just that to build another double-digit lead in the third quarter. It didn't let that lead slip away.
"On defense, we were really good," Thompson said. "A couple of turnovers is all it takes. If we get some stops and get in transition, we are going to score the points we need."
Covington led the Lady Yellow Jackets with 19 points. Jalisa Outlaw had 18 and Gandy added 11. Thompson had nine points scored and 10 rebounds.
"We needed every one of those rebounds," Williams said. "Holding the other team to one shot is the key thing in making a run."
As the lead mounted, Starkville put the hammer down with its suffocating defense. The Lady Jackets will need to do that one more time.
"It feels great to be one win away," Outlaw said. "This has been the goal from the beginning of the season. To be this close, it's exciting. It is one you have worked for."
Jayla Alexander led Pearl with 17 points. Libby Mosley had 15.
Starkville will face Murrah for the fourth time this season. Murrah won the first meeting, while Starkville defended its home court in the final regular-season matchup. The Lady Yellow Jackets also won their meeting in the region tournament in Jackson.
"Murrah has an outstanding team," Williams said. "The confidence level (on our team) is high. We have to do what we have been doing one more time."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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