It hasn’t been easy for Robert Woodard II.
The only returning starter from last year’s Mississippi High School Activities Association Class (MHSAA) Class 6A State championship team, Woodard has had to assume a lot of responsibility and be a leader for the Columbus High School boys’ basketball team. First-year coach Gary Griffin has turned to Woodard often in practice and in games to help the younger, inexperienced players find their roles on the team and be every game contributors.
For the most part, Woodard has been the offense on most nights. He stepped up big again as he scored 30 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Columbus beat crosstown rival New Hope High 71-62 Saturday night in the final game of the Joe Horne Christmas Classic at the Columbus High gym.
“I knew when three minutes hit the clock it was time to take over, so I just basically told them to give me the ball, spread it out and just get to the free throw line. That was my mind-set,” Woodard said.
Trailing 58-53 late in the fourth, the Falcons finished regulation on a 5-0 run. Dorian Brewer made a layup. Woodard followed with layup of his own and then hit a free throw to force the four-minute overtime period.
However, Woodard could have won the game in regulation but he missed two free throws down the stretch. He was fouled by Terryonte Thomas, but he missed the front end of the one-and-one. He got his own rebound and was fouled during the act of shooting, but he missed the first and made the second.
He made seven free throws in overtime.
“At the moment I was feeling it,” Woodard said of the missed free throws. “I was calm in my head and I really didn’t feel any pressure. I felt it the whole game at the free throw line, but I was knocking them down. I got up there and they rimmed out.”
New Hope’s JaQuante Bell picked up a technical foul and Griffin didn’t hesitate putting Woodard on the line. He made both and the Falcons (5-6) took a 68-60 lead.
Woodard missed Friday night’s 66-40 loss to South Atlanta with a sprained ankle.
It was unclear if he was going to play, but Griffin walked into the locker room minutes before they were supposed to hit the floor and saw a pleasant surprise.
“I had been hearing rumors about him playing, but he actually never told me he was going to play, until I went into the locker room with three minutes in the fourth quarter before our game and I saw him dressed. That’s when I knew he was going to try to give it a try,” Griffin said.
New Hope coach Drew McBrayer said there was no chance of Woodard missing this game and wasn’t surprised to see him dressed out and in the starting lineup.
The Falcons outscored the Trojans (10-3) 17-12 in the third to take a 38-37 lead. Columbus led 40-39 early in the fourth, but New Hope went on a 10-0 run to take a 49-40 lead. Thomas, who had a team-high 22 points, capped off the run with a one-handed dunk.
But the Trojans couldn’t extend a 10-game winning streak.
“We still had control of the game in the final two minutes, we just missed too many free throws down the stretch,” McBrayer said. “We’ve got to be able to step up to the line and make those free throws down the stretch. It just happens sometimes, but it’s disheartening because we were in position to win the ballgame and we just let it get away.”
After the Falcons scored the first four points of the second, the Trojans went on a 10-2 run to take a 23-11 lead. Tyler Stevenson scored six points and Thomas scored the other four. But the Falcons fought back and finished the first half on a 10-2 run to trail 25-21 at the break.
The two teams combined for seven made field goals (New Hope six and Columbus one) in the first as New Hope led 13-5. Woodard made three free throws and Jonte Williams made the Falcons’ first field goal late in the opening quarter.
Denijay Harris scored 22 points for the Falcons.
“We just let him do what he can do,” said Harris of Woodard taking over down the stretch.
Bell scored 13 points, while Tyler Stevenson and Andrew Junkin scored 10 a piece for the Trojans.
The two teams meet again Friday, Dec. 30, in New Hope’s tournament.
Even though he missed two free throws that would have given his team the win in regulation, Woodard felt good about his team’s chances in overtime and he didn’t disappoint as he scored nine points to help the Falcons outscored the Trojans 13-4.
“Once we went in to overtime, once we made it that far it was basically over because momentum had shifted,” Woodard said. “I walked up to Denijay and I told him, ‘It’s time to win it the hard way since we missed the free throws,’ so I felt it coming.”
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Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.