FULTON – The Lions of East Mississippi Community College couldn't quite dig out of a 19-point, second-half hole in dropping a 73-72 decision to host Itawamba Community College during Thursday's championship men's game of the 2014 MACJC State Basketball Tournament played at ICC's Davis Event Center.
The title tilt featured a rubber match between the MACJC North Division's top two teams. Two weeks ago in Scooba, the Lions avenged their 107-103 double-overtime setback at Itawamba back on Jan. 21 by posting a convincing 85-51 home triumph over the Indians.
Making their first finals appearance in the men's state tournament since 2010, the second-seeded EMCC Lions fell victim to a 21-5 Itawamba run midway through the opening half that turned a one-point ICC lead into a 35-18 cushion for the home team. With their first of two significant comebacks on the night, the Lions responded with 11 unanswered points to cut the deficit to six (35-29) on a Jacolby Mobley 3-pointer with two minutes left in the half.
The Indians extended the margin back up to double digits with four straight free throws, but the first-half scoring wasn't quite finished. Fresh off his 31-point performance during Wednesday's 75-69 semifinal-round win over Jones County, EMCC's Avery Woodson rattled home a 60-foot buzzer-beater from beyond midcourt to pull the visitors to within seven points (39-32) heading into the intermission.
However, the expected momentum change following Woodson's half-court shot didn't come to fruition, as the Lions struggled coming out of the locker room to start the second half. Empty offensive possessions and turnovers by EMCC opening the closing period resulted in 10 unanswered points by Itawamba. It wasn't until the 15:27 mark of the half before the visitors got on the scoreboard with two free throws from Davon "Chuck" Ester. EMCC's first field goal didn't come until seven minutes deep into the half on a Mack Foster basket.
After ICC's Tay Crawford hit a 3-pointer to beat the shot-clock buzzer and then followed moments later with a solo made free throw, the Indians stretched their advantage to a game-most 19 points (56-37) by the 11:41 mark. Fueled initially by a Foster trey and a banked 3-pointer by Woodson midway through the half, coupled with getting consistent stops on the defensive end, the energized Lions ran off 16 unanswered points to pull to within three points at 56-53.
However, the MACJC North Division champions continued to feed off the supportive home crowd and battle EMCC's aggressive pressure defense. Getting some key buckets to stay in command, Itawamba was able to bump the lead back up to eight points on a couple of occasions down the stretch. A 1-of-2 effort at the line by ICC's Lakee Westbrook gave the hosts a 69-63 lead heading into the pressure-packed final minute of play.
Foster capped a 15-point evening by rebounding a missed Woodson 3-pointer, completing the put-back basket and converting the bonus free throw to cut the deficit in half with 44.4 seconds left to play. Following two made charity tosses by Itawamba's Dee Gates, Mobley's clutch three-point basket made it a two-point contest (71-69) heading into the waning seconds.
With 19.9 seconds remaining on the game clock, Itawamba's Tyrone Wooten was fouled and went to the line with a chance to make it a two-possession contest. After knocking down his first attempt, Wooten's miss on the second shot was rebounded by Foster to keep it a three-point margin. On the Lions' ensuing possession, Mobley's entry pass into the post was picked off by Wooten, who was promptly fouled. Again with a chance to essentially put the game on ice, Wooten returned to the charity stripe. Things got interesting when his first attempt rolled off the rim. But with just 5.4 ticks left in the championship contest, Wooten's second toss was true. At that point, Mobley's banked 3-pointer at the final buzzer was not enough for the Lions in their long-awaited attempt at securing the program's first modern-day state men's basketball title.
Mobley, a Starkville product headed to Tennessee-Chattanooga, led all game scorers with 20 points for his seventh 20-point effort of the season. Foster, a Louisiana-Monroe signee and Woodson, a future Memphis Tiger, followed with 15 points apiece. Former Kemper County High School standout Devonta Pollard added 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds for the Lions.
Improving to 17-9 overall with their first state tournament men's title since 2008, Itawamba was led by Alex Anderson's 19 points. Johnthan McGee followed with 14 points for the Indians.
Coach Mark White's 19-6 EMCC Lions now set their collective sights on next week's NJCAA Region 23 Basketball Tournament, slated for March 5-8 at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus in Clinton. As four-time reigning NJCAA Region 23 champions, the fifth-seeded East Mississippi men will begin tournament play by taking on No. 4 seed Mississippi Gulf Coast Thursday (March 6) at 2 p.m.
Back in postseason tournament play for the first time in three years, head coach Sharon Thompson's 16-8 EMCC Lady Lions, seeded sixth in next week's NJCAA Region 23 women's bracket, are set to tip off Wednesday (March 5) in Clinton at 6 p.m. versus MACJC State Tournament runner-up and No. 2 seed Southwest Mississippi. The SMCC Lady Bears claimed a 66-61 win over EMCC during Tuesday's quarterfinals of the state tournament played in Fulton.