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Tupelo-Columbus matchup will be twice as nice Friday

 

Columbus High School’s Briona Green prepares to beat the defense with a one-handed runner against Hernando on Tuesday night.

Columbus High School’s Briona Green prepares to beat the defense with a one-handed runner against Hernando on Tuesday night. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff  Buy this photo.

 

Scott Walters

 

 

Columbus High School boys basketball coach Gary Griffin had a plan. He just had to wait to use it. 

 

That opportunity will come at 8:30 p.m. Friday when Columbus (16-11) plays host Tupelo (24-4) for the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 championship. Tupelo (23-5) will take on Columbus (21-4) at 7 p.m. for the girls title. 

 

Columbus was playing its best basketball of the season when Tupelo came to town and earned a 71-56 victory on Jan. 24. After that game, Griffin knew he would have to change his game plan to have a chance to upset the Golden Wave -- a team ranked ninth in the state by The Clarion-Ledger. 

 

"We don't have the depth of Tupelo," Griffin said. "They have an outstanding team. They have depth and I really thought we got worn out. We have been playing really good basketball of late. Sometimes, it's all about what you are doing as a team. Sometimes, though, it is about matchups. You have to alter what you are doing to win in certain spots." 

 

Griffin quickly came up with what he and his staff wanted to do differently. However, the second regular-season meeting -- a 60-40 Tupelo win one week later -- had no bearing on the region standings. With that in mind, Griffin kept his plans close to the vest. 

 

"We knew the odds were high we would meet in the (region) championship game," Griffin said. "This is the game we both really want and both really need. We will make adjustments and play a different game than we did in either game in the regular season. We are playing at home and the kids are excited. Hopefully, things will fall our way." 

 

Columbus beat South Panola 70-52 and Tupelo beat Hernando 62-43 on Tuesday in the opening round. Those victories put both teams in the Class 6A playoffs. The winner of Friday's 5:30 p.m. third-place game between Hernando and South Panola also will make postseason. 

 

While playing next week is secured, the stakes are still high. Friday's championship game loser will play host to a first-round playoff game Tuesday, while the winner will receive a first-round bye and will play at home Saturday in the second round for a trip to Jackson. 

 

"There is some relief that you are in (the playoffs)," Columbus junior Robert Woodard II said. "We have had some up and down moments, so just knowing you will play next week is a big deal. You put that out of your mind when you play Friday. Tupelo has a great team. We know we have had a difficult time matching up with them. 

 

"We have to play hard for four quarters and we have to make shots. They can make the game get frantic, and we can't get caught up in that." 

 

Griffin said his team's confidence didn't waver during the early struggles or during a stretch where it won seven of eight games before falling to Tupelo the first time. 

 

"We changed some roles and made some changes to the lineup, and I thought the kids really responded," Griffin said. "When you return one starter (Woodard II), it takes some time. Now, we are playing with a comfort level with one another. You can tell there is a lot of crispness to what we are trying to do." 

 

Griffin said the high school state tournament is similar to the NCAA tournament where teams are fighting for better seeding and better positioning in the bracket. The recently adopted MHSAA format now has all rounds of the playoffs single-elimination. 

 

Friday's loser will play at home Tuesday, but it most likely will be fighting for a trip to Starkville in the second round. 

 

"Your place in the bracket is huge," Griffin said. "To be able to play at home with a chance to go to Jackson versus (potentially) winning at Starkville to go to Jackson. That is a monumental difference. That's why you can't underestimate the importance of winning Friday night." 

 

The girls game will be the rubber match of this season's three-game set. Columbus won 53-49 at home before losing 58-49 on the road. 

 

"It's all about execution," Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said. "When you play a team for the third time and the teams are evenly matched, it's about execution. Who can do what they do best? That's really going to decide the game." 

 

On Tuesday, Columbus beat Hernando 46-33, while Tupelo beat South Panola 80-44. 

 

The Tupelo and Columbus girls are both in the playoffs. Friday's loser will play host to the first round Monday, while Friday's winner will get a bye and host in the second round Feb. 24. The winner of the third-place game between Hernando and South Panola at 4 p.m. Friday also will make the playoffs. 

 

"Making the playoffs is huge," Columbus sophomore Hannah White said. "We have worked hard the entire season with that being our No. 1 goal. For the seniors, we want to help them make a run and hopefully win a championship. We have competed against some of the best teams in the state. When we play really hard-nosed defense, we can be a championship team." 

 

Columbus held Hernando to four field goals in the second half Tuesday. 

 

The two Tupelo-Columbus girls games have gone to the wire. Columbus trailed for three quarters before winning the home game. 

 

"That was our biggest win," Columbus senior Zaria Jenkins said. "We knew after that we had what it takes to win the championship. We just have to stay focused. Here lately, we have turned it on in the second half. We can't do that Friday night. We have to play defense for four quarters. If we do that, I like our chances." 

 

Tupelo is ranked eighth in the state in the latest rankings. Friday's victory would move Columbus into that short list of state title contenders. It also would mean the team most likely would avoid a trip to undefeated Starkville in the second round. 

 

"We have pointed to this game from the start of the season," Hairston said. "It's an honor to be hosting the (region) tournament. We set the goal of winning it on day one." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott 

 

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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