Southwest Bears advance to state finals
FULTON – Leading virtually the entire game, the Bears magical run through the MACJC state tournament continued Wednesday night in the semi-finals as they defeated the East Mississippi Lions 61-59 to advance to Thursday night’s championship game.
In the title game, the Bears (16-8), the South’s third seed, will face South Division foe Jones County (17-6). The Bobcats, seeded second in the South for the tournament, defeated Gulf Coast 95-93 in double overtime Wednesday night. The Bears and Bobcats split their two regular-season meetings.
The Bears took an early 4-0 lead on baskets from Guy Johnson and Terrell Miller. A three pointer from Lafayette Rutledge then made it 10-5 with 14:44 left in the first half.
After the Lions tied the score at 10-10, with 13:57 on the clock, an Emanuel Thompson layup and another Rutledge three gave the Bears a 15-10 advantage with 12:18 on the clock.
The Lions cut their deficit to 15-13, with 9:10 before the break, but a Mario Doyle three pointer and layup then put the Bears’ lead back to seven, 20-13, with 6:39 on the clock.
The Bears took their biggest lead of the half, 25-15, when Miller sank a free throw with 2:41 left in the half. A Rutledge jumper with 0:02 left allowed the Bears to take a 30-20 lead at intermission.
Outscoring the Bears 11-2 to open the second half, the Lions pulled back to within a point, 32-31, with 15:26 left in the game. But, the Bears quickly regrouped and went up by five, 42-37, on Thompson’s three pointer with 12:21 to go.
Leading 44-42 midway through the second half, the Bears outscored the Lions 13-6 over a 3:55 span and extended their lead to nine points, 57-48, on a pair of Rutledge free throws with 6:09 left in the game.
Not willing to go quietly, the Lions then went on another 11-2 run and tied the game at 59-59 with 1:43 remaining.
After a Southwest timeout and turnover, the Lions had two opportunities to take the lead, but were unable to connect on a pair of jump shots.
With the game seemingly headed for overtime, the Bears called timeout to set up a play. Taking the ball inbounds, and with time winding down, the Bears’ Chris McIntosh passed the ball to Miller under the goal. Miller then laid the ball through the hoop for a 61-59 lead with 0:05 left.
The Lions had one last chance at the win, but a long distance three pointer was no good allowing the Bears escape with the win.
“We are so blessed to be able to continue our journey together,” said Bears’ head coach Thomas Gray. “I can’t be more proud of the effort the guys gave today. They were resilient when East Mississippi made a strong run to tie the game (near the end) and I was so proud of the defensive stops at the end of the game to give us a chance to take that final shot.”
“Mario stepped up in an enormous way today,” Gray continued, “scoring 10 points and hitting two very important threes. He has been so patient and waited for his time to step up and he capitalized today. (Assistant) Coach (Andy) Farrell drew up a great play for Terrell to convert that shot at the end of the game. So many times assistant coaches don’t get the credit they deserve, but today Coach Farrell deserves a ton.”
Miller led all scorers in the game with 20 points. He added 13 rebounds to record his ninth double-double of the season. Rutledge was also in double figures with 17 points. The Bears made good on six of nine free throws.
The Lions were led by Gardiner’s 19 points. The team hit 14 of 22 free throws.
The Bears and Bobcats tip off the championship game Thursday night at 8:00. Speaking of his team’s familiar foe, Gray said, “Jones County is obviously one of the best teams in the state, probably one of the deepest, if not the deepest, teams that we have played all year.”
“They are very talented at every position,” Gray concluded, “and seem to have a different guy have a big game every time I look at their box score. I think our guys respect them significantly and will understand the challenge ahead of them.”
The championship game can be heard on the radio on WAZA 107.7FM, or on the internet at southwestbearathletics.com.