February 14, 2017 10:57:25 PM
Columbus High School had a 45-second stretch where it stole the basketball seven times against Hernando at the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 tournament Tuesday night.
While the Lady Falcons only scored two points off those seven takeaways, it was foreshadowing for the sensational second half on the defensive end that was to follow.
Columbus held Hernando to four second-half field goals and cruised to a 46-33 victory in the opening game of the four-team, two-day event.
Columbus (21-4) will face Tupelo (23-5) at 7 p.m. Friday in the region tournament championship. Both teams have secured a home playoff game when the Class 6A playoffs begin next week.
"We really want to win the tournament for our fans, our coaches and ourselves," Columbus sophomore Hannah White said. "However, the pressure is off a little bit, because we know we are in. That's exciting. You want to make the playoffs We knew how important it was to win this game. In the second half, our defense was good. It led to our offense."
The region runner-up will host a first-round playoff game, while the region champion will receive a bye and later host a second-round playoff game. The ability to play at home in the playoffs was a sweet reward for a workman-like performance by the Lady Falcons.
"This team wants to compete for the state championship," Columbus senior Kaylyn Wilson said. "To be able to do that, you have to play great defense. You have to hold the other team down and make sure that they don't score. This team really enjoys playing defense. Some teams don't like to play that physical, rugged style. That is when we are at our best."
In the regular season, Columbus beat Hernando in double overtime at home, before winning big on the road. Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said the close call earlier in the season got her team's attention.
"Credit to Hernando because they came out with a totally different offensive game plan against us," Hairston said. "You expect some of that when you are playing a team for the third time in a season. It took us a little while to get adjusted. In the second half, we played much better on the defensive end. We looked at what they were doing at halftime and made some adjustments. I thought the girls really did a great job of executing the changes we made on the defensive end. Even on off nights, we feel like we can enough scoring to win most games."
Columbus scored the game's first five points before missing its next nine shots from the floor. While the offensive woes continued, the Lady Falcons' raised their antennas on the defensive end.
Wilson had four steals alone during the seven-steal stretch and finished the game with 10 overall.
"Easy baskets that is what we look for," Wilson said. "We have good size so we just try to make some things happen in the passing lanes. You could tell they got a little uncomfortable. Sometimes, you can tell when the other team is doubting if they can get the ball where they want to."
Columbus used a 7-0 run to take a 17-14 lead. Hernando (14-11) would then score to start the second half, creating a 20-20 tie.
From there, it was all Columbus.
Tori Weir had three defensive rebounds and two steals; Wilson had two steals and White had a block and two steals as Columbus seized control of the contest.
"We knew we couldn't allow them to stay in the game with us," Hairston said. "We couldn't match up with them in a zone, because they were running some new sets. Hannah White was so great defensively. They ran a box-in-one on here, so she didn't score as much as she usually does. She made up for the defensive end. She took three charges there in the second half."
Wilson finished with 13 points for Columbus, while Zaria Jenkins added 12 points.
Columbus will now set its sights on the rubber match of three games this season with Tupelo. The Lady Wave beat South Panola 80-44 in Tuesday's other semifinal.
"We know we have another (playoff) game at home and that's great," Hairston said. "But we set the goal of winning our district tournament, so we really need to do that. We just have to come out with more focus and more energy." It will take four quarters of effort. That is how we beat them in the regular season."
White looks forward to the opportunity.
"Tupelo is a great team," White said. "We feel like we are a great team. We are at home, playing for a championship. We have worked hard all season for this moment."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter