WEST POINT — A nine-point halftime deficit is an anthill to the Oxford High School girls basketball team.
After losing twice to Oxford in the regular season, Kelsei Ewings knew the Chargers were going to ratchet up their full-court pressure defense a few notches, so she challenged teammate NeKeisha Walker.
Ewings cautioned Walker that Oxford was going to try to take her out of the game and that she needed to play a key role.
“She was like, ”I got you,” ” Ewings said. “She stepped up and handled the ball and handled the pressure.”
Ewings poured in a game-high 36 points and Walker added 14 and played a steady role navigating the pressure defense Friday to lead the West Point High girls basketball team to a 67-54 victory in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A, Region 1, District 2 tournament title game.
The district title is believed to be the program”s first district title since 2002.
West Point (20-4) will play host to Indianola Gentry at 7 p.m. Monday in the first round of the Class 5A North State tournament.
The Lady Green Wave reached their destination by rebounding from two regular-season losses to the Lady Chargers (23-3), who last lost Jan. 18 to Lafayette.
Oxford”s weapon of choice is its full-court pressure defense. And while it forced its share of mistakes Friday night, West Point refused to wilt under the glare.
“Tonight we played more physical and we handled their pressure,” West Point coach Jemmye Ann Helms said. “They pressure everywhere on the floor and we would get weak at moments. The first time, we were weak the entire game. They just pounded us. The second time, their pressure got to us in the last two minutes and we fell apart.
“Tonight, our kids wanted to win so bad that they just played hard. Even when we did make mistakes, and we might make them back to back to back, we still got down and kept them from getting back into the game. My kids showed some perseverance at the end, and it paid off.”
West Point received a stellar effort from Ewings, who attacked the basket and played sniper from long range with deadly accuracy. When Oxford tried to face guard her with Kristen Dickerson, Walker emerged as a poised second ballhandler who weaved her way through pressure and stayed under control.
“I just kept my head up and played strong and stayed tough with the ball,” Walker said. “She knew they were going to stop her from handling the ball, which meant I had to step up and do the part of the job that I am not used to doing: Handling the ball more and being strong with the ball and playing great defense.”
Walker acknowledged she made a few mistakes, but she received strength from her coaches and her teammates who kept encouraging her. The praise seemed to motivate her as she hit two pull-up jumpers after zigging and zagging through the defense in the first half. She was up to the task in the second half, too, nailing another pull-up jumper in the lane and handing out nice assists off drives.
Walker capped her highlight reel by banking in a 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter to give West Point a 48-32 lead. The play epitomized her night, as she nearly lost the ball in the lane on the other end of the court. But she regrouped, avoided the thieves, and had the presence of mind to get a strong shot off before the buzzer.
“All I had to do was to keep self-confidence,” Walker said. “You have to believe in yourself before everybody else believes in you. I knew my teammates and my coaches believe in me, so I had to take care of the ball instead of always looking for the pass. When I went up for a shot, I just focused on the rim and made it.”
Walker said the district title game was different from other games this season in that she took more shots instead of passing when she drove to the basket. She said she tried to alter what she did when she attacked the rim. She said when the Lady Chargers looked for her to pass, she shot, and vice versa. The strategy worked because Walker remained aggressive and helped West Point beat Oxford down the floor numerous times for easy baskets before the defense had time to set up.
“I applaud Keisha,” Ewings said. “She stepped up when I, honestly, I didn”t think she would. All year she has been nervous and not really wanting to handle the ball.”
Ewings said Walker showed in the beginning and during the season she could play like she did Friday night, only to allow her nerves to get the better of her. But she didn”t see any tentativeness in her teammate in one of the biggest games of the season.
Walker begged to differ.
“I am not saying I wasn”t nervous, but I was calmer,” Walker said. “I just kept praying and kept my anxiety under control.”
Walker said she had a “whole bunch” of turnovers in the first game against Oxford. She said she might have had four turnovers in the second meeting. She said those performances motivated her to work harder in practice and to concentrate on staying poised and keeping her head up so she could see the floor.
Walker”s ability to see the whole court and stay in attack mode helped West Point have a night to remember.
“She turned it over a couple times at the end, and I called her over and said to her, ”Why don”t you drive in there and shoot it? ” ” Helms said. “She can make that shot. She got her head up, got focused, and we expect a lot out of her. She stepped up and showed it.”
Ewings had 14 of her points in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal. West Point also benefited from solid performances from Wilma Davis, Morgan Alexandra, No. 14, No. 12, and No. 24.
“We wanted pay back,” Ewings said. “When we first played them, they blew us out. We knew we didn”t play a good game. We hadn”t played a good game all season, so we knew we wanted to play hard, to be district champs, and to play home in the first round (of North State), or we would just let them take the game. It was just our heart. That was the biggest thing.”
Ewings and Oxford”s Erika Sisk, who had 28 points against West Point, were named the district”s co-players of the year. Walker, Davis, and Cantrell also were named to the all-tournament team, along with New Hope”s Kaitlin Bradley and D.J. Sanders.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.