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Second half defense lifts Columbus boys into region tournament championship

 

Scott Walters

 

 

Columbus boys basketball coach Gary Griffin and junior player Robert Woodard II came to the same conclusion at halftime of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 tournament Tuesday night. 

 

With the Falcons leading by one point, Griffin knew the second-half task centered around stopping South Panola junior Kendarius Carlton. Woodard II knew the right man for the job. 

 

"I was really tired of (Carlton) driving into the lane and getting whatever he wanted," Carlton said. "It was time to stop that. As the leader of this team, I felt like my job was to go out there and stop him from scoring." 

 

Woodard II did just that. 

 

Carlton had 11 first-half points but only one second-half point. 

 

Columbus would pull away to a 70-52 victory in the opening-round of the four-team, two-day event. 

 

Columbus (16-11) will face Tupelo (24-4) at 8:30 p.m. Friday for the region tournament championship. Both teams are guaranteed a home playoff game when the Class 6A playoffs begin next week. 

 

"It means a lot to get in," Griffin said. "We have talked all year about the huge opportunity that we had by hosting this (region) tournament. The regular-season doesn't matter now. It's like March Madness for the colleges. It's all about this week and the next three weeks. You can make your path to a championship easier by winning the right games at the right time. This wasn't our best, but it was a win." 

 

After routing South Panola twice in the regular season, Griffin was hoping for a chance to rest Woodard II some Tuesday night. Instead, the game was surprisingly tight throughout. The Falcons needed everything from Woodard II, whose final line included 30 points, 12 rebounds, five steals, three blocks and only the final three minutes off the floor. 

 

"We are in playoff-mode now, so it's whatever takes to help this team win," Woodard II said. "This is a new team from last season. We have overcome a lot of adversity to get to this point. However, we are here now. This team has grown up and played a lot of games together now. It's time to see how well we can play the rest of the way." 

 

Columbus senior Dorian Brewer said the Falcons have taken flight of late. The team has a higher confidence level and believes it is built for the postseason. 

 

"Everybody knows that Robert is the man, we go as he goes," Brewer said. "Our job is to play our individual roles. The more scoring help he gets, the better we are as a team. He can take over a game at any time. Our job is to make sure we do what we need to do to give him a chance to take over a game." 

 

On this night, Woodard II took the game over on the defensive end. 

 

Brewer rammed a critical 3-pointer for a 48-40 lead. Woodard then had a block, steal and fed Denijay Harris for a transition basket. That score ran the lead to nine at 53-44. 

 

Columbus opened the fourth quarter with a 10-0 run, including a pair of scores from sophomore Greg King. 

 

"We will need everybody if we are going to win another championship," Woodard II said. "I think a lot of people took this team lightly early in the season. We had new guys and we weren't playing well. Things have gotten a lot better. We have good chemistry on the offensive end. When we lock in and everybody plays well on defense, we can compete with anybody. Everybody knows about last year's championship. We need to enjoy playing in that role and not back down from it. When we click offensively, the game is fun." 

 

Griffin said his team knew the challenge of beating South Panola for a third time. He also knew the team would be excited to be playing at home in the region tournament. 

 

"We got a lot of contributions from a lot of players," Griffin said. "That is when we are at our best. At halftime, we talked about making some changes on the defensive end. We felt like No. 23 (Carlton) was the only player who could really do a lot of damage to us. To Robert's credit, he took the defensive assignment and shut him down. People talk about halftime adjustments. They ask what you do differently. We did one thing differently." 

 

Harris had 12 points and five assists for the Falcons, while Brewer had 10 points. 

 

Tupelo beat Hernando 62-43 in the other semifinal. The Golden Wave will be looking for a third victory over the Falcons. Tupelo won by 15 at Columbus and by 20 at Tupelo in the regular season. 

 

"The biggest thing is confidence," Brewer said. "We can't try too hard. We know it's a big challenge. We were in the game in the fourth quarter both times in the regular season. We just have to find a way to finish." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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