ELLISVILLE – The Lions of East Mississippi Community College made school history by culminating a successful three-day run at the MACJC State Basketball Tournament with a 61-58 victory over host Jones College in Thursday night's title game at A.B. Howard Gymnasium to claim EMCC's first-ever state championship in men's basketball.
With their ninth straight victory and 12th win in the last 13 games dating back to Jan. 14, Coach Billy Begley's EMCC Lions improved to 19-7 overall heading into next week's NJCAA Region 23 Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton. Entering postseason play with a 10-2 league mark as MACJC North Division regular-season champions for the first time since the 2012-13 season, the sophomore-laden Lions claimed a 70-53 win over East Central on Tuesday before knocking off 15th-ranked Pearl River, 62-57, in Wednesday's semifinals to advance to the championship contest.
"It was an unbelievable game," EMCC's Begley said. "We knew it was going to be this kind of game. Jones is so disciplined under Coach (Randy) Bolden, and they're not going to beat themselves. My hat is off to our kids – that's what it's all about."
EMCC's first state title game appearance since 2014 featured 14 ties and 11 lead changes, while the largest lead in the contest was just six points by Jones midway through the opening half. The last 10 minutes of the first half stayed within two points with the Bobcats taking a 31-29 edge into intermission on Zachariah Malone's put-back jumper at the halftime buzzer.
Coming out of the break, the home-standing Bobcats opened up a pair of five-point leads early in the second stanza. But each time it appeared that Jones might be on the verge of establishing control of the game, EMCC sophomore guard Dewayne Cox had the answer. A pair of lightning-quick drives to the rim on three-point plays cut into 36-31 and 50-45 deficits that gave the Lions much-needed lifts at equally opportune times. Cox was just getting started, however, as the Ripley native continued to make his all-around floor presence felt throughout the second half on his way to posting his second career double-double along with adding five assists, four steals and two charges taken on the night.
"Dewayne Cox is big-time," Begley continued. "He's playing through an injury that will require surgery at the end of the season. He's one of the toughest kids I've ever been around. He was just everywhere tonight."
Following the contest's 14th and final deadlock with 2:33 remaining, EMCC sophomore guard Robert Davis Jr. banked in a 3-pointer from straightaway at the 2:10 mark to give the Lions a 57-54 advantage. That slim lead was primarily secured down the stretch by Cox, whose defensive efforts contributed two critical steals, a game-saving defensive rebound and a game-clinching pair of free throws during crunch time.
With just over a minute remaining in the contest and the Lions having just been called for a five-second violation, Cox promptly swiped the subsequent inbounds pass and laid it in on the other end to give EMCC a 59-56 lead. After Galen Alexander's put-back basket made it a one-point game, Cox made up for a Lion miscue by deflecting the ball off a JC defender with 40 seconds left to regain possession for the visitors.
Following another late EMCC turnover, it was Cox again who came up big by collecting Alexander's missed three-point attempt and converting the free throws after getting fouled with just four ticks remaining in regulation to make it 61-58. The classic championship contest almost needed an extra session, as Michael Williams Jr.'s potential game-tying 3-pointer just missed at the final buzzer.
After holding reigning state champion Pearl River to a season-low 57 points in the semifinals, including just 22 points after halftime, on 32 percent shooting (17-of-54 FGs) overall from the field and just 2-of-21 (10%) from beyond the three-point arc, the Lions stepped up their defensive effort again in the title tilt. EMCC also limited the Bobcats to just 32 percent shooting (21-of-66 FGs), including only 24 percent (8-of-33 treys) from three-point range.
Offensively as a team in the championship game, the Lions shot 51 percent from the field on 21-of-41 accuracy, including 4-of-9 (44%) from the arc, and 71 percent from the line on 15-of-21 free throws.
Along with Cox's double-double effort of a game-high 19 points (6-9 FGs & 6-6 FTs) and 10 rebounds, Davis added 10 points for the winners.
Falling to 20-6 on the season, the MACJC South Division champion Jones Bobcats were led by Alexander's 15 points and nine rebounds. Kenneth Rogers followed with a dozen points.
"These guys have been through a lot together and they've grown together," Begley added. "To see it culminate with the first-ever men's basketball state championship in school history is very special. We're going to enjoy this one. We're not done, though, because it continues next week (at regionals)."
The men's portion of next week's NJCAA Region 23 Basketball Tournament tips off Wednesday (March 6) at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus in Clinton. East Mississippi will open regional play with a 3 p.m. quarterfinal-round contest against Holmes. The EMCC-Holmes winner will advance to take on the winner of the Mississippi Gulf Coast-Southern University at Shreveport (La.) game at 5 p.m. Thursday in semifinal-round action. The regional championship contest is set for Friday at 7 p.m. with the winner advancing to the NJCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, March 18-23, in Hutchinson, Kansas.