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Lady Panthers win in OT

JACKSON — Nikki Byrd and her Brookhaven teammates were lookingat a 9-point deficit midway through the second quarter on theMississippi Coliseum’s portable hardwood. Brookhaven’s 6-foot-2senior center returned to action and sparked a spirited comeback,leading the Lady Panthers to a 50-48 overtime victory againstPontotoc in the quarterfinals of the MHSAA Celularsouth Class 4AState Tournament.

Byrd finished with a game-high 18 points. In the 4-minuteovertime, she scored her team’s only points. Swayze Black, Byrd’s6-foot-3 senior teammate, won the tipoff, tapping the ball to Byrdwho sacked a jumper from the left wing, giving the Lady Panthersall the points they needed. They held Pontotoc scoreless in theextra session. A short jumper by Di’Amber Johnson rimmed out andBrook’s Ashley Gayten grabbed the rebound as time expired.

“In my head, I was thinking, ‘It’s not about me. It’s the team.If I don’t go hard, we will be sitting at the house,'” said Byrd.She also had 11 rebounds.

Brook (31-6) advances to the 4A semifinals and a rematch withIndianola Gentry Tuesday, March 4, starting at 1 p.m. Last season,Gentry defeated the Lady Panthers in the championship game en routeto a perfect record.

Pontotoc (31-4), the North No. 3 team, came out blazing whileBHS missed its first four field goal attempts. The Lady Warriorsbuilt a 9-point, 27-18 lead, on a jumper by Jordan Smithey. Byrdreturned to action and hit back-to-back field goals, pulling herteam within 5 points, 31-26 at halftime.

“We kept our head in the game,” said BHS coach Freda Craft.”Normally, we get down when we get behind.”

Craft said Byrd and Black and 6-foot senior teammate WhitleyShannon play cautious defense inside because of their heightadvantage. “My big girls usually foul out. They played togethertoday, on both ends of the floor.”

Black finished with 12 points and 9 rebounds. Ashley Gayten cameoff the bench to score 7 points and grab 9 rebounds when Byrd gotin foul trouble.

The Panthers got a boost from guard Kiera Collins who provided 2straight field goals in the third-quarter rally. Her second2-pointer from the wing gave BHS a 41-40 lead with 9 seconds leftin the third frame.

Pontotoc coach Bill Russell had prepared his team for the TwinTowers, Black and Byrd, but Collins shooting from the perimeter wasa surprise. “Our game plan didn’t include No. 11. She stepped upand made some big shots.”

An Ole Miss signee, Byrd scored off an assist from Gayten andpushed her team ahead 43-40. Byrd’s 2 free throws with 2:43 left inregulation gave BHS a 48-46 advantage. Two clutch free throws byLori Crudup gained Pontotoc a 48-48 knot with 2:11 remaining.Neither team was able to score again.

Black, an LSU signee, said she wasn’t worried when her team fellbehind in the second quarter. “I was ready to play and stick to ourgame plan. We had to be patient and work the ball.”

Russell said when Brookhaven changed its defense in the secondhalf, it slowed down Johnson who had sacked 4 first-half treys.Johnson, a 5-7 senior guard, had 14 points at halftime but didn’tscore again.

“Brookhaven extended their defense down the stretch,” saidRussell. “They used a 1-2-2 zone and put Swayze up top and Byrd onthe wing.”

Asked about his game plan, Russell said his team “was at a hugeheight disadvantage. “I wanted to run early and wear them down. Italmost worked. We got some good looks late but they didn’t goin.”

Russell said his 8 seniors had helped Pontotoc win 110 gamesduring their varsity careers. “They played their guts outtoday.”