February 14, 2017 11:46:50 PM
BY WILL NATIONS
Special to The Dispatch
JACKSON -- Jesse Little played a big role in Starkville High's semifinal-round game of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 3 tournament ... despite what his surname might suggest.
The 6-foot-10 senior controlled Starkville's frontcourt, leading the team with 19 points, and the Yellow Jackets routed Northwest Rankin High 69-35 on Tuesday night at Callaway High School.
"It was a real confidence boost to get the ball early and allow myself to get my energy set," Little said. "I think we feel, as a team, we are the best when we step out on the court. We know this because we keep pushing each other to our greatest potential."
Starkville (26-2) will face Callaway at 7:30 Friday night for the regional title. The Yellow Jackets clinched a berth in the state tournament next week with Tuesday's win.
Little scored his team's first six points during the opening seven minutes. Starkville carried a 15-4 lead into the second quarter. However, Northwest Rankin took advantage of a Jacket shooting slump, closing its double-digit deficit to six points with 4:25 left in the first half. One minute later, the Jackets answered with their own, short six-point run highlighted by a Jordan Temple 3-pointer and Blake Rogers' transition lay-up that restored the lead to double digits, 24-12. By halftime, Starkville led 31-20.
In the third, Starkville fed the rock to Little, who did not disappoint. He added nine more points, and he stuffed several Cougar drives toward the basket, as well. The Jackets iced the game, outscoring the Cougars 20-8 in the fourth.
"We like to play and compete, no matter what factors are placed in front of us," Starkville coach Greg Carter said. "We are trying to keep improving and compete for a championship."
Also leading Starkville's attack, Temple scored 11 points, and Ddallen Bailey netted 10.
With its first game of the postseason under its belt, Starkville looked determined to return to the Mississippi Coliseum and have its shot to reclaim the gold ball -- as it did in the 2015 season. After falling to Columbus High in the Class 6A State Championship last season, the Jackets are determined to rewrite the past in the present.
"Last season's loss has been a motivating factor this season. The pain of losing the state championship far exceed the happiness of winning one," Little said.
In girls action, the Starkville Lady Jackets placed four scorers in double figures and put on a clinic against the Madison Central Lady Jackets with a 69-18 victory. The Lady Jackets, the region regular-season champs, extended their undefeated season to 27 wins and hope to finally clinch a state championship after back-to-back stinging defeats on the state's biggest stage.
"We thrived on our defense tonight," Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. "In practice, we have really pressed on our on the ball defense. The girls are really stepping up to the plate. Especially in the postseason, our girls know defense is going to carry us."
Though the numbers give the measurables, it was the actions of many Lady Jackets that highlighted the dismantling of Madison Central in the tournament's second girls' semifinal. Kelsey Jones provided solid play inside the paint; grabbing rebounds, posting up for the easy baskets and swatting away any close shot attempts by the Lady Jaguars. Jalisa Outlaw's sharp shooting poked holes through Madison's zone, pacing Starkville's offense, and Jariyah Covington assisted with a shutdown defensive effort and assisted the black and gold's attack.
"We've seen a lot of zone because of Kelsey, in the middle," said Williams. "Our girls have been patient to work the ball around and find the best shot. Whether it is Kelsey or Jalisa or Jariyah Covington stepping up for the big plays."
As a team, Starkville imposed a sweltering full-court press in the first half and blanked Madison's offense for the game's initial eight minutes and 41 seconds. Offensively, the Lady Jackets knocked down six 3-pointers.
Individually, Outlaw paced Starkville with 17 points. Tabreea Gandy and Jones added 12 apiece, and Covington scored 10.
With the knockout blow directly from the tipoff, Starkville raced to a double-digit advantage, 12-0, three minutes into the first quarter and had a 23-point lead at the quarter's conclusion. The Lady Jaguars finally found the scoreboard with two free-throws with seven minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the first half. Outlaw caught fire in the second, adding 11 points, which included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer before halftime, for a 40-5 lead.
Starkville stretched its advantage to as large as 50 in the second half and cruised in the final 16 minutes, resting its starters throughout the fourth.
"If we want to reach the final four and championship game, we have to keep this level of focus and consistency," Williams said.
The Starkville girls face Callaway at 6 Friday night for the region title with a playoff berth already in the bag.
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