The 2020-21 season hasn’t exactly gone as the Columbus High School girls basketball team hoped.
The Falcons went into COVID-19 quarantine twice only to be greeted with three games in three days upon emerging from their second pause. They earned the No. 1 seed in MHSAA Class 5A, Region 2 just in time for winter weather to essentially eliminate every advantage that comes with that position short of the automatic first-round bye.
“This is not,” Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston said, “an ideal year.”
Still, the Falcons have the chance to turn it into another great one.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs, Columbus will host Lafayette to begin its road to defending last year’s state championship, the first in school history. The Falcons beat the Commodores 39-37 in a classic in the 2020 quarterfinals thanks to a last-second runner by Aniya Saddler, but Saddler graduated and now plays for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Seven other starters between the two schools, including Commodores star Azariah Buford, have also moved on; only Columbus’ DJ Jackson and Lafayette’s Karizma Norphlet remain.
“It’s going to be a different game and a different look for us,” Hairston promised Tuesday.
Monday night, she headed to Oxford to watch the Commodores take on and beat Ridgeland 49-38 in the two schools’ first-round game and came away with the realization that Lafayette is no longer the team that gave the Falcons perhaps their biggest challenge of the postseason.
“Last year, they were bigger and stronger; this year, they’re smaller and faster,” Hairston said.
She said the Commodores present several different looks on defense, but Lafayette primarily employs a man-to-man scheme — something the Falcons haven’t seen since a Dec. 11 win at Starkville High School.
“We’re going to have to make sure that we play well,” Hairston said.
That will be particularly important for Columbus against a Lafayette team that can combine the intrinsic motivation of playing for a spot in the state quarterfinals with the revenge it hopes to incur.
“I know it’s personal for them because we knocked them out, so of course they want to return the favor to us this year — they want to knock us out,” Hairston said.
She took note of the Commodores’ strong shooting night Monday, expressing hope that a change of scenery from the familiar rims of Lafayette’s home gym to new territory in Columbus would only hurt Lafayette’s shooting percentage. Good defense, too, will play a part.
“We’re hoping that we can get somebody to contest some of those shots and they won’t shoot it as well,” Hairston said.
With a win Wednesday, the Falcons would have a quick turnaround for a quarterfinal game Friday, but Hairston said Columbus is prepared: Playing Grenada, New Hope and West Point on back-to-back-to-back nights just a few weeks ago helped the Falcons adjust to such a grind.
“We know that mentally and physically we’ll be ready to go when we have to because of what we’ve been through,” Hairston said.
But the Falcons will cross that bridge when they get to it, and they know the Commodores are the obstacle blocking their path. Hairston declared Columbus ready for what Lafayette will bring to Wednesday’s game, saying as long as the Falcons meet the moment, they will get the win.
“When it comes down to this time of the year, they try to take away what you’re good at and not let you do some things,” she said. “We’ve just got to have some people who really step up and play big tomorrow.”