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Southwest Bears edge Northwest Rangers

The Bears’ success away from home continued Monday afternoon as they opened the MACJC state tournament, at Itawamba Community College, with an 86-80 win over the Northwest Rangers Monday afternoon.

The win moved the Bears to 15-8 overall, 8-2 on the road. They will face the Lions of East Mississippi Community College at 3:00 in Wednesday’s semi-finals. The Lions eliminated Pearl River from the tournament, 80-73.

Guy Johnson nailed a three pointer to give the Bears an early 3-0 lead before the Rangers scored four in a row to go up 4-3 with 17:21 left in the half.

The Bears took their biggest lead of the half, 15-8, when Lafayette Rutledge sank a three pointer with 13:59 left before the break.

Leading 30-24, the Bears watched the Rangers (16-8) score seven straight and take a 31-30 lead on Mark Partee’s trey with 4:15 on the clock. The teams traded baskets the rest of the half and the Rangers took a 40-39 lead into the locker room at intermission.

In the second half, the Bears took a 45-43 lead on a pair of Rodrick Sikes free throws with 16:56 showing. With 14:17 to go, Sikes’ old-fashioned three-point play had the Bears up by six, 54-48.

A 12-1 run over the next 4:10 resulted in a 60-55 Ranger lead. But, the Bears answered with an 8-0 run, capped by a Rutledge three pointer, to regain the lead, 63-60, with 8:21 on the clock.

Back-to-back baskets by the Ranger’s Seth LeDay tied the game at 66-66, with 5:39 to play. But, the next 3:35 belonged to the Bears as they outscored the Rangers 13-4 and took their biggest lead of the game, 79-70, on Terrell Miller’s three pointer with 2:04 remaining.

The Rangers outscored the Bears 10-5 to pull to within 84-80, with 0:12 left. But, a pair of free throws from LeDerrius Simmons sealed the deal for the Bears and they went on to advance to Wednesday’s semi-finals.

“I thought, overall, our guys gave great effort,” said Bears’ head coach Thomas Gray. “I thought a large part of today was guys being ready to come off the bench and continually being ready to play even with guys getting in foul trouble.”

“Rodrick Sikes obviously played huge for us,” Gray continued. Sikes scored a season-high 27 points. “He is coming off a wrist injury and has slowly gotten back to where he was at the beginning of the year. It’s been frustrating for him going through everything, but I am so proud of his embracing it and stepping up in a major way today.”

“Overall,” Gray concluded, “I am so proud of these guys and how they are working together in an unselfish manner. It’s a blessing to be able to coach a group of guys like this.”

Sikes was 9-12 from the field and 9-12 from the free throw line in leading the Bears’ offense. Miller added his eighth double-double with 23 points and 17 rebounds while Rutledge also scored in double figures with 16 points. The Bears were 28-36 from the free throw line.

LeDay scored 28 points for the Rangers to lead all scorers. He and his teammates combined to go 16-31 from the free throw line.

Gray knows his team will not have an easy time of it against the Lions Wednesday afternoon. “East Mississippi is one of the better teams in our league and has continually had success year in and year out,” he said. “They are extremely talented in every position (and) they have a lot of versatile guys who will present difficult matchups. We have to be focused on what we will need to do in order to be successful on Wednesday.”