CLINTON – East Mississippi Community College's impressive late-season men's basketball run came to an end with a 72-64 loss to Holmes in Wednesday's quarterfinals of the NJCAA Region 23 Basketball Tournament being played this week at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus.
Capped by claiming the school's first state championship in men's basketball since the 1930s with last week's successful three-day run in Ellisville, Coach Billy Begley's EMCC Lions entered this week's regional play having won 12 of their last 13 games, including a nine-game winning streak. The team's 19-8 overall record also included a 10-2 division mark that earned the Lions their first regular-season MACJC North Division title in six years.
As the region tournament's No. 2 seed, the EMCC men fell behind early during Wednesday's opening-round matchup against divisional foe Holmes. After the seventh-seeded Bulldogs held the advantage for the first 14 minutes of the opening half, Robert Davis Jr.'s baseline floater at the 5:49 mark gave the Lions their first lead (19-18) of the contest. EMCC then carried that slim one-point edge into the break with a 29-28 halftime lead.
Holmes came out of intermission to promptly reclaim the advantage on Winford Ross' three-point play and managed to maintain the lead for most of the first 10 minutes of the second stanza. Midway through the half, EMCC's Dewayne Cox continued his perfect afternoon from the charity stripe with a pair of free throws to knot the score at 44-all with 10:12 remaining in the contest.
That's when Holmes' inside-outside combination of Ross and reserve guard Jaylen Lester teamed to propel the Bulldogs on a 16-4 run over a five-minute span that created a 12-point margin. During that stretch, Lester connected on three of his five second-half 3-pointers, while Ross hit a pair of inside baskets to cap the surge that put Holmes on top 60-48 with 5:39 remaining in the game.
The Lions responded by utilizing their full-court press to get back into the contest. While EMCC's press was forcing some backcourt turnovers on defense, sophomore forward Darrious Agnew started to go to work inside offensively for the Lions. The Starkville product scored six of his 13 second-half points during a two-minute span to help enable the Lions to cut the deficit to two points (64-62) with 2:38 left in the game.
With the momentum seemingly on EMCC's side, perhaps the critical point of the contest came when Holmes' Kassim Nicholson stepped up and drilled a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to make it a two-possession game with just over two minutes remaining. The Lions could only manage two more Cox free throws the rest of the way, while the Bulldogs went on to secure the eight-point win and advance to Thursday's semifinal-round matchup against Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Statistically, Holmes owned a significant shooting advantage from the perimeter. The Bulldogs shot 47 percent (25-53 FGs) overall from the field, including 11-of-21 (52%) accuracy from beyond the three-point arc. In contrast, EMCC struggled by shooting just 35 percent (18-51 FGs) from the field and only making 3-of-20 (15%) three-point attempts.
Agnew and Cox led the way for East Mississippi with 16 points apiece. Agnew added nine rebounds, while Cox hit all 14 of his free throw attempts in addition to collecting five rebounds and three steals.
Off the bench for Holmes, Lester paced all scorers with a game-high 18 points on 6-of-12 three-point shooting. Czar Perry followed with 16 points, eight assists and three steals for the Bulldogs. Ross added 15 points and Nicholson posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.