CLINTON – East Mississippi Community College's reign as four-time defending NJCAA Region 23 men's basketball champions came to an abrupt end during Friday's semifinals when Johnny Zuppardo's banked 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer lifted the 19th-ranked Bobcats to a 73-72 victory over the Lions at the A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus.
During the waning seconds of the low-scoring extra session, EMCC took a 72-70 lead after Avery Woodson hit 1-of-2 free throws with 2.5 seconds left in overtime. Following a timeout after the missed second attempt, JCJC's Tyler Rhodes threw a half-court pass to Thaddeus Hall, who promptly called another timeout. After the officials conferred to add an extra six-tenths of a second on the game clock to round off the remaining time to a full second, Zuppardo collected Rhodes' inbounds pass and dribbled once before stepping back behind the three-point line and banking in the buzzer-beating, game-winning shot.
The heartbreaking setback marked East Mississippi's first regional loss since falling to Holmes in the 2009 NJCAA Region 23 semifinals. Since that loss, head coach Mark White's EMCC Lions had strung together 13 consecutive regional victories and four straight regional titles before Friday night's stunning defeat at the hands of the top-seeded JCJC Bobcats.
Zuppardo's heroics culminated the five-minute extra session in which he scored all seven of Jones County's points on two free throws, a bank shot in the post and finally the game-winning 3-pointer. This coming after the 6-foot-9 forward from Kiln almost ended the contest at the end of regulation. After EMCC relinquished a seven-point lead over the final 2:35 of regulation, Zuppardo's potential game-winner at the second-half buzzer hit off the back of the rim to set up the dramatic overtime period.
Featuring a dozen ties through the opening 20 minutes of play, the fifth-seeded Lions owned a 42-38 halftime advantage. After the Bobcats took a brief 46-45 lead, EMCC's Antonio Finley drilled back-to-back treys to extend the margin to 51-46 by the 13:43 mark. But, JCJC again clawed back to reclaim a one-point edge (55-54) by the midway point of the second stanza.
That's when the hero of EMCC's quarterfinal-round 69-68 win over Mississippi Gulf Coast stepped up once again for the Lions. Jacolby Mobley ignited an 8-0 East Mississippi run with a step-back jumper followed by a 3-pointer. The Starkville native then capped the spurt with a floater that put EMCC ahead, 62-55, with 5:20 left in regulation. Another Mobley floater three minutes later still had the Lions on top by seven (64-57) at the 2:35 mark.
After Mack Foster's up-and-under reverse flip shot gave EMCC a 66-60 lead with 1:46 left in regulation, the Lions were hurt by a pair of untimely turnovers and a missed one-and-one opportunity down the stretch. Leroy Fludd's run-out basket following a Lion miscue knotted the score at 66-all to set the stage for the climactic finishes to the second half and subsequent overtime period.
With 11 points in each half, Mobley tied for game scoring honors with 22 points for his ninth 20-point effort of his sophomore year. The Tennessee-Chattanooga signee capped his 20-point outing in Thursday's quarterfinals with a full-court, game-winning drive to the basket as the final horn sounded.
After scoring 17 points in the first half, Woodson, a University of Memphis signee, was limited to just an overtime free throw after intermission to finish with 18 points. Former McDonald's All-American Devonta Pollard, of Kemper County, had 14 points and seven rebounds in his final game for EMCC.
Finishing the campaign at 20-7 with their fifth consecutive 20-win season, the Lions' seven setbacks in 2013-14 came by an average margin of just 3.6 points per loss, including a pair of one-point defeats to end the year. Last week in Fulton, EMCC dropped an identical 73-72 decision to host Itawamba in the championship game of the MACJC State Tournament. In addition, East Mississippi was attempting to become the first NJCAA Division I men's basketball program in more than 40 years to make five consecutive appearances in the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
Looking for the school's first-ever NJCAA Region 23 basketball championship, the 22-5 JCJC Bobcats will take on the Pearl River Wildcats in Saturday's 8 p.m. men's championship contest. Fludd and Zuppardo led the way for Jones County against EMCC with 22 and 21 points, respectively.
The women's regional title tilt, slated for a 6 p.m. tip-off Saturday, will pit Southwest Mississippi versus Baton Rouge CC.