WEST POINT — On Valentine’s Day, there was hardly any love in the West Point High School gymnasium.
Between the lines, the visiting Provine High School boys basketball team defeated West Point 67-48 in a Mississippi High School Activities Association first-round Class 5A North State tournament game.
While there was an intense, physical nature to the game, an equally compelling storyline was the passion in the stands, which forced play to be halted three times, including once after a fight in the visitors section.
West Point had rallied from a slow start on offense and trailed 26-25 with 1 minute, 29 seconds left in the opening half. Play was then halted when a ruckus took place on the first two rows of stands a couple of feet behind the Provine High bench.
After a couple of punches were exchanged, the brawl spilled out onto the court, knocking a handful of Provine players out of their seats on the end of the bench. Law enforcement was quickly on the scene and peace restored.
Both teams went into the locker room for about a 20-minute delay. Once play resumed, West Point scored quickly on a layup to grab a one-point lead. Provine battled back and took a 31-29 halftime lead on a putback in the closing seconds.
The Rams then scored the first 17 points of the third quarter. West Point missed 11 straight shots from the field and never recovered.
“The stoppage of play really hurt us because we had gotten the momentum,” West Point coach Brad Cox said. “You could tell my kids were nervous to start the game. We recovered and found a way to take the lead. Just as we were hitting our stride, we had the stoppage of play.
“Then we play two minutes and go into halftime. Give credit to Provine because they changed their defense in the second half. It caused us some problems and totally changed the game. However, we were really in a rhythm there in the second quarter and couldn’t keep going.”
An intense tone was set early, as the officials called five fouls in the first 75 seconds. Twenty-six personal fouls were assessed in the first half.
West Point struggled to make shots out the gate. The Green Wave held its own on the offensive boards, so the Rams couldn’t run away early. Still, Provine stretched a 6-5 lead into a 15-7 advantage after one quarter.
“We had some nerves and we played real tight,” West Point senior guard Cortez Malone said. “We weren’t really ourselves when the game started. Once we got going and made some shots, things came a lot easier for us. It took a lot of effort on our part to come back and get the lead.”
The Green Wave tightened up the defense and finally found some consistency on offense. A 3-pointer by Daryl Thomas brought West Point within 20-19 with 5:13 left in the half.
The strong offensive play also allowed the capacity crowd on the West Point sidelines to get involved. A handout at the door encouraged fans to recognize “Silent Night.” West Point fans were asked not to cheer or to respond until the team scored its 10th point of the game.
So as the Green Wave struggled early, a packed student section hung tight and quiet hoping for the 10-point threshold to be reached. Once the Green Wave righted the ship and made some shots, it was game on through the end of the half.
“We really got on the kids good at halftime,” Provine coach Otis Gaines said. “I don’t really know what that first half was. We knew we had to play a whole lot better to have a chance. We had a good start and then quit defending.
“The second half was really good. We played some really good basketball then.”
Tempers then reached the boiling point late in the second quarter. During the melee, a pair of Provine fans were arrested for assaulting an officer. A couple of fans were escorted out of the gym seconds after the incident was resolved.
Over the public address system, fans were encouraged to relocate and “move up a row” allowing the seating area behind both benches to be clear. Once law enforcement got a handle on the situation, a few more fans were removed from the stands. Each of the removals was met by a loud cheer from the West Point student section.
West Point grabbed the 27-26 lead on a layin by Keon McKinney. A basket by Malone tied the teams at 29. Provine then scored on a putback by Jacquez Johnson to end the half.
“In the first half, they had played a 1-2-2 half-court trap,” Cox said. “At halftime, they changed to a 2-1-2 half-court trap. That threw us out of our rhythm. We had a hard time getting our guys to the right spot. We were trying to do without too many timeouts.
“In the third quarter, they got some steals and got some easy layups. We did a good job in half-court defense. When they turned us over in the open court, it made it difficult.”
West Point didn’t catch any breaks on offense in the 17-0 run. The Green Wave missed a dunk, two uncontested layups, and two putbacks. Meanwhile, Provine hit 6 of 7 shots in the run.
“They figured us out of at halftime,” Malone said. “The third quarter was too much to overcome. We felt good at halftime. We came back out and it was as if they knew everything we wanted to do after that. We couldn’t get a shot to go down and the game got away from us rather quickly.”
The contest still remained intense. Play was stopped twice to calm the West Point student section. In the fourth quarter, the Provine students, cheerleaders, and a several fans were escorted out of the gym with about three minutes remaining.
The Rams (16-10) stretched the lead to 25 late before sealing Friday’s North State semifinal date with Starkville at Jackson Callaway.
Provine’s Dandy Dozen forward Roger Woods led the Rams with 23 points. Courtney Shannon added 15 points, while Johnson added 10 points.
Malone led West Point (12-14) with 14 points. McKinney, the team’s top defender who was slowed by early foul trouble, added 11 points, while Quante Gaston scored 10.
“I am really proud of how hard we fought tonight,” Malone said. “Things didn’t go our way, but we played hard until the end. I really love these guys and will take a lot of memories from here. We went out giving it our best.”
Despite losing seven seniors, Cox believes his program can build on the Region 2 championship, the school’s first district title since 1989.
“We are trying to build something here,” Cox said. “Tonight didn’t work out. In the big picture, this was a major step forward for the program.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.