FULTON — Jarvis Leigh staggered into the stanchion behind the basket.
Fouled hard by a pursuing South Pontotoc defender, the Caledonia senior was knocked off balance as he dribbled the ball quickly down the court. Leigh ran into the blue post holding up the backboard, placing his hands against the white lettering in order to keep his feet.
Then he went to the foul line and sank both free throws.
The pair of makes gave the Cavaliers a three-point lead over the Cougars early in the third quarter of Tuesday’s MHSAA Class 4A, Region 2 tournament semifinal at Itawamba Community College, part of a stretch in which No. 5 Caledonia pulled away for a 51-40 win over fourth-seeded South Pontotoc. The Cavs clinched a spot in the Class 4A postseason with the win, and it was proof Leigh and Caledonia weren’t ready just yet to be knocked off their feet.
“It feels good to be back in the playoffs,” said Leigh, who finished with 14 points.
The senior said he and his teammates were motivated to return after missing out on the postseason last year. Every day in the summer, the failure to qualify weighed on Leigh’s mind.
Now, as of Tuesday night, Caledonia is back where Leigh feels it belongs — and with considerable impetus.
“Everything we’re doing from now on is just momentum for the playoffs,” Leigh said.
That includes Wednesday’s semifinal with top-seeded Pontotoc, which beat the Cavs handily on both regular-season occasions this year. Caledonia coach Tony Seals said he hopes his team can carry its success into that matchup.
“They’re good,” Seals said of the Warriors. “There’s no doubt they’re good. But our guys have got a little bit of confidence.”
On Tuesday, that confidence stemmed from making the necessary improvements against the Cougars. Caledonia and South Pontotoc split a pair of regular-season matchups, and the Cavs watched film galore to find out where they needed to improve. So did the Cougars, of course, the result being that both teams were plenty familiar with one another.
“They knew what we were going to do,” Seals said. “We knew what they were going to do. It was a matter of executing and just making shots.”
When it came down to it Tuesday night on ICC’s hardwood, Caledonia had the edge. The Cavs got reliable inside scoring from junior Jeremy Emerson and big games from Leigh and sophomore Jordan Pratt. Pratt, a reserve guard, scored all eight of his points in the fourth quarter, and all of them came in big spots: a steal and a tough and-one; a deep 3-pointer; two important free throws out of the one-and-one to seal the game.
“We’ve been in the gym with him every day, and we trust him,” Leigh said of Pratt.
But it was Leigh and Emerson, staples on offense and defense for Caledonia all year, who kept the Cavs ahead throughout the game. Leigh had 11 points in the first half, and Emerson had 12 of his game-high 19 in the second.
“They’re the backbone of our team,” Seals said. “They make us go.”
The duo paced the Cavs at the foul line as Leigh made 4 of 6 free throws and Emerson converted 5 of 7 including two pairs of makes following an 0-for-2 trip to the line.
Emerson’s four free throws in the final minute provided crucial insurance as Caledonia extended a five-point lead as South Pontotoc fought to come back. When Pratt was fouled with the Cavs up nine and 9.5 seconds to go, Leigh knew Caledonia had sealed the game — but he had to consider an old adage.
“My dad always told me it’s not over until it says 0:00,” Leigh said.
Soon, that moment occurred, and Caledonia players jogged joyously into the locker room assured of a top-four seed in the district and thus a playoff berth. But the Cavs are hoping for more.
Seals has seen it happen, even for teams like Caledonia who went through up-and-down regular seasons. Once, at Russellville (Alabama) close to 30 years ago, he was an assistant on a team that won just five games in the regular season but made it all the way to the state final four.
What’s to stop Caledonia from being next?
“Crazier things have happened, so why not us?” Seals said. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”
Shannon girls 59, Caledonia 35
The Caledonia girls were eliminated from the 2-4A tournament with a 59-35 loss to Shannon on Tuesday.
Tenyzia Lathan scored 19 points to lead the Cavaliers.
Caledonia ended the season with a 4-18 record.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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