Editor’s Note: A preview of the Region 2-5A tournament set for New Hope will appear in The Dispatch on Tuesday.
Columbus High School boys basketball coach Gary Griffin is ready for the payoff.
While playing a difficult non-region schedule, Griffin stressed the challenges were designed to help his young squad be at its best when postseason play arrived.
That second season arrives Tuesday when Columbus plays host to the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 tournament. The two-day, four-team event begins at 4 p.m. when the Columbus High girls take on Hernando. The Columbus boys play South Panola at 5:30 p.m.
Elsewhere in the area, the Starkville High boys and girls will play at Jackson Callaway in the Class 6A, Region 3 tournament. Both New Hope and West Point teams will play in the Class 5A, Region 2 tournament at New Hope. Each of those teams will plays Tuesday night.
In Classes 5A and 6A, the top three teams advance to the playoffs, which means each team has two chances to win one game to advance to postseason.
“The season has been a long grind, but I think the guys are excited about the region tournament and the playoffs,” Griffin said. “There has been a lot of adversity, but there has also been a lot of growing up. We will carry some momentum into the tournament. We played the difficult games in November and December so we would be prepared for what is next.”
The reigning MHSAA Class 6A state champions began the season ranked fourth in the state and on a short list of state title contenders. However, they also started the season with four new starters and a new head coach. The schedule was front-loaded and the Falcons paid the price.
However, after a 3-6 start, the team played some of its best basketball down the stretch. Griffin has gone with a bigger lineup of late and junior Denijay Harris has proven the perfect complement to Danny Dozen junior Robert Woodard II.
Columbus enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed, thanks to two losses to top-seed Tupelo (71-56 in Columbus and 60-40 in Tupelo). The Falcons (15-11) won eight of their last 11.
“It took a while for the kids to get used to playing with the expectations,” Griffin said. “Even though we are a totally different team from last season, people still have our game circled as the defending state champions. We just have to stay within ourselves and do the things that we are capable of doing.”
The Columbus girls are also seeded second behind Tupelo. The Lady Wave and Lady Falcons split in the regular season (a 53-49 Columbus win at Columbus and a 58-49 Tupelo win at Tupelo). Tupelo earned the region’s No. 1 seed by virtue of margin of victory.
Senior Zaria Jenkins leads the Lady Falcons (20-4). She has received a lot of help in the second half of the season as the team has played tenacious defense and has found more balance in the scoring column, thanks in large part to the play of Kaylyn Wilson, Tori Weir, Hannah White, and Briona Green.
“Our balance has been really good,” Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said. “With each win, the girls have gained a little more confidence. We have taken a lot of pressure off Zaria, and that has made us a much better team. She can focus on being a leader and doing the things that she needs to do without having all the pressure of doing all the scoring.”
After losing for a second time to undefeated Starkville, the Columbus girls reeled off 13-straight wins before losing to Tupelo.
As far as Tuesday’s matchups go, the Columbus boys swept South Panola (63-42 and 62-52), while the Columbus girls swept Hernando (68-54 in overtime and 47-22).
Meanwhile, two of the state’s hottest teams will be on display at Callaway.
The Starkville boys and girls will look for return trips to the Class 6A state tournament when region play begins Tuesday. The Yellow Jackets lost in the 2016 Class 6A finals after winning the title in 2015. The Starkville girls have lost in the state tournament semifinals each of the last two seasons.
The Starkville girls (26-0) are ranked second in the state by The Clarion-Ledger. They will face Madison Central at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Starkville boys (25-2) are ranked third in the state and will face Northwest Rankin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
In the regular season, the Starkville girls swept Madison Central (53-10 and 60-17), while the Starkville boys swept Northwest Rankin (83-38 and 42-37). The Starkville boys are riding a 17-game winning streak.
“When the team bought in on the defensive end, we really became a good basketball team,” Starkville boys coach Greg Carter said. “We lost a lot of scoring off last year’s team, so not a lot of people knew what type of team we would have. The kids have worked hard. A year ago, we were dealing with the pressures of trying to repeat (as state champions).
“This season, it was a new slate. The kids really enjoy playing with each other. We have some scoring options and we have a little more size, too.”
The heartbreak of back-to-back stinging defeats on the state’s biggest stage have left the Starkville girls wanting more. In the last three seasons, the Lady Jackets have compiled a 77-8 record.
“It’s difficult to be at your best every night,” Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. “When we haven’t been at our best, we have still found a way to win. That is what championship teams are able to do. The disappointment of last season has always been a motivation.”
Third-place teams in each region tournament will travel for first-round state playoff games. Second-place teams in each region tournament will play host to first-round playoff games. Region tournament championships will receive a first-round bye in the playoffs and will play host to second-round games, needing one win to advance to Jackson and four to win a state championship.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.