When the Starkville High School boys basketball team carried a lead into the final minute of a regular-season basketball loss at Columbus in November, coach Greg Carter was pleased.
The season had just started and Carter had a lot of unknowns. He also was missing some key football players who hadn’t finished a run with Chris Jones’ team.
On the other hand, Columbus was a senior-laden team and a favorite in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A race thanks in large part to player of the year candidate Robert Woodard II.
Carter said his team would learn from the loss and be better the next time around. He was right, as Starkville avenged a 64-62 loss at Columbus with a 58-53 victory against Columbus at home four weeks later.
Now, the rubber match is set for 8:30 tonight in the semifinal round of the Class 6A State tournament at Mississippi Coliseum.
“Even though the two games with Columbus were so early in the year, they really set the tone for the season,” Carter said. “Top-notch, high-level basketball. Pressure packed situations where you had to make plays. I think our guys really grew up from that challenge. It showed we could compete on a high level with the best teams in the state.”
Carter said he felt like the two Golden Triangle rivals have been on a collision course since early January. It is the second high-profile meeting in three seasons. Columbus beat Starkville in the 2016 state championship game.
That game included a younger Woodard, who was a sophomore but already one of the state’s top prospects. It is also included Tyson Carter, who was playing his final season at Starkville before moving on to Mississippi State.
The younger Carter led Starkville to the 2015 state championship.
While Columbus went from underdog to state champions two years ago, Starkville might be trying to do the same thing this season.
“Other teams have gotten more notoriety and that has been fine with us,” Starkville senior guard Jordan Temple said. “We made a pact on this team to stick together. We are all in this together. We want to be the last team standing. It is not important who is supposed to win. It is important who does win.”
Few potential underdogs have the resume of Starkville (25-3). The Yellow Jackets have won 21-straight games since a loss to Okolona. All three losses took place before Carter welcomed his school’s football players back.
The return of the football players paved the way for the emergence of Atavius Jones. Already emerging as one of the state’s top football prospects in the Class of 2019, Jones has been a force in the middle. His challenge will be supreme tonight against the scoring punch of Woodard II and Denijay Harris.
Columbus (25-6) enter the game on a 14-game winning streak, even though the first game at the coliseum was a harrowing experience — a 41-38 victory against Terry. Starkville defeated Harrison Central 57-47 to advance to the semifinals.
“There are no easy games in Jackson,” Carter said. “The challenge is always the first game. You have to get used to your surroundings and you have to prove you belong in that element. The second game in Jackson is different. It’s a rival and somebody we know well.
“Most Starkville-Columbus games go down to the final couple of possessions. There is no reason to think this will be different.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.