December 23, 2013 9:57:44 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
Now that Jay Jay Swanigan has settled back in at Columbus High School, he is learning how to be a go-to player.
For the second-consecutive night, the junior forward played a key role when the Columbus High School boys basketball team needed him to lead the team to a 56-42 victory against New Hope in the final game of the 17th annual Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Classic late Saturday night.
"I told him at halftime to be more assertive and to play hard and you are the go-to guy, but you have to play through adversity," Columbus coach Sammy Smith said. "He did. They did a good job of taking him out of some things. ... We held on and did what we are supposed to do."
The game, which was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., didn't start until after 10 p.m. and didn't end until a little before midnight on an evening in which rain and high winds associated with a Tornado Watch in all three of the counties in the Golden Triangle.
Swanigan (game-high 19 points) and the Falcons (11-3) overcame the initial adrenaline rush everyone had when they rolled out in front of the packed gymnasium. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound left-hander had the final two baskets of the first quarter as Columbus trailed only once at 2-0. Swanigan's second basket came on a drive from the free throw line. He punctuated the move with a pumped fist and a yell that helped show how much the game meant to the Lowndes County rivals.
Swanigan made his presence felt again in the fourth quarter with two big baskets. Two free throws by Toddy Jennings helped New Hope cut its deficit to 39-36 with 6 minutes, 27 seconds left to play. But Swanigan rebounded a miss by Scott and scored. On the ensuing possession, he took an entry pass on the left wing and exploded to the basket with a slashing move that pushed Columbus' lead back to seven points.
"If I put my mind to it I can do it," Swanigan said.
Swanigan didn't remember the move after the game, but he said he is going to need to keep making big plays like that to keep the Falcons going.
Smith agreed, saying Swanigan is in a better place this season after going through and up-and-down sophomore season. Swanigan, who said he had stuff outside of basketball that prevented him from focusing, transferred to Immanuel Christian School for the start of the 2013-14 school year and played quarterback on that school's football team, which made it to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A playoffs.
Smith feels his team needs to find a similar consistency to help it advance to the postseason.
"We have to keep working," Smith said. "We have to keep listening to coach and I have to keep putting them in a position to be successful. If I do that, I think he will respond and we will do better. Everybody has to do better."
Now that he is back at Columbus, Swanigan also feels primed to realize his potential. Swanigan said Smith reminded him of that at halftime when he told him to be stronger with the ball and to attack the basket because he always will have mismatches. Swanigan, who had a team-high 20 points in a 59-58 victory against Midfield (Ala.) High on Friday, felt he did those things enough to help the team win, but he acknowledged he could have done it even more. He said he doesn't mind he is coming off the bench. In fact, he sees it as added responsibility because he knows he has to come in with a lot of energy to provide a spark.
Brandon Porter, one of five Columbus seniors, had 12 points, while classmate C.J. Scott added nine.
Porter had two of the biggest baskets of the night after New Hope committed a turnover with a chance to cut into a 43-38 deficit with a little more than three minutes remaining. Porter's driving baskets kicked Columbus' lead back to 47-38 and set the stage for a 3-pointer by Javonta McDavid that extended the cushion to 50-39 with 2:33 to go. The lead grew to as many as 15, the biggest of the game, before it settled on the final margin.
"There was a lot of intensity out there since this was the first time we have played them this season," Porter said. "Everybody was ready for the game, and we came out and played hard."
Columbus and New Hope will meet again on Saturday, Jan. 4, at New Hope's Classic tournament.
Porter said everyone was "amped" at the start of the game, so it was imperative that the Falcons calm down and do what they have been coached to do. Part of that coaching involves playing tough defense and fitting into roles to make up for the fact the team doesn't have a superstar who can carry the Falcons on his back.
"We are real confident," Porter said. "Our motto is playing defense. We just play together, and that is how we get our points on defense by playing hard."
While Porter said playing hard is a key for him to be a consistent contributor on offense, Swanigan said his goal is to play at a high level every night so he can
"I have to keep working," Swanigan said. "Coach always tells us to be afraid of not playing hard. I always keep that in my mind and I just go out there and play as hard as I can and give it my all."
Swanigan said he reached that level in a loss to Madison Central earlier in the season, but against New Hope he felt he did the same but slacked off a little bit after he got frustrated. The halftime reminder helped Swanigan regroup and set the Falcons on their way.
Shermar Johnson paced New Hope with 16 points, while Jaylon Bardley had 14, but no other Trojan had more than three points. The performance was in stark contrast to New Hope's victory against Caledonia earlier this month in which it had four players in double figures. After that game, New Hope coach Drew McBrayer said his team is at its best when it shares the basketball. Columbus' defense had something to do with New Hope's lack of productivity, but McBrayer said the Falcons killed his team on the offensive glass and that his team needs to do a better job on defense to help it score easy baskets when it is struggling on offense.
"You can blame it on the (atmosphere of the game and the rivalry). You can blame it on not being tough enough and trying to do too much on your own," McBrayer said. "We did not move the basketball. We did not share the basketball. Credit Columbus. They come out and play tough defense. I just thought we lacked a lot of toughness."
McBrayer was even more agitated about his team's inability to keep Columbus off the offensive glass. Several times during the game, McBrayer encouraged his players to box out and to do a better job corralling loose balls.
"That was the key going into the game, and we knew it, because they go to the glass extremely hard," McBrayer said. "We just weren't tough enough to go block somebody out and go get a rebound. If you can't execute a simple block out it is going to be a tough season. (Blocking somebody out) just comes down to nothing but hustle. You don't have to be physically gifted to go block somebody out. You just have to put a body on somebody. Lack of execution in that area, when you have worked on it all week and harped on it as a key to the game, is very frustrating. I think that was the difference in the ballgame. I hate to know the numbers. It was bad."
n In other games from Saturday, the West Lowndes girls beat Holt (Ala.) 44-41. The Holt (Ala.) boys beat West Lowndes 63-32.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.