Columbus High School girls basketball coach Yvonne Hairston knew what it would come down to. What it always came down to.
The Falcons needed to sink their free throws. Otherwise, free throws would sink them.
And ultimately, even though Hairston knew just what it would take to win Friday night’s MHSAA Class 5A quarterfinal against Holmes County Central, she was powerless to stop it.
The foul line proved to be the Falcons’ undoing in a 53-45 loss to the Jaguars that denied Columbus a chance at a second straight state championship.
“It all came down to what I thought it was: shooting free throws,” Hairston said. “We had the opportunity to win the ballgame.”
The Falcons (14-3) missed 15 attempts at the line, including three 0-for-2 trips in the final four minutes, and those wasted chances cost them in the end. Holmes County Central seized the lead back in the fourth quarter after a stunning Columbus comeback in the third, and the Jaguars were steady at the stripe as they punched their ticket to the Class 5A semifinal against Brookhaven on Tuesday at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.
“They just were more aggressive than us,” Columbus senior point guard DJ Jackson said. “They wanted it more. It all comes down to who wants it more, and they did.”
But perhaps no one on the floor showed their desire more than Jackson, who almost unilaterally willed Columbus to what would have been an astonishing comeback win.
Unable to buy a bucket, the Falcons trailed the Jaguars 21-7 with around three minutes left in the first half. Holmes looked poised to run away with things.
Then Jackson hit a layup and drew a foul. Her free throw was off — a harbinger of things to come — but the comeback was on. Sophomore Shania Givens hit a layup through contact (though she, too, missed at the line) and junior Mashanti Saddler made a putback shot to keep the game at eight points at halftime.
After Jackson missed both free throws on a trip to the stripe midway through the third quarter, Columbus dominated the rest of the period. Jackson was everywhere — a huge and-one to cut the lead to three; a steal and a layup to make it one; a baseline jumper to keep the Falcons within one possession. With 32 seconds left, junior Myra King cashed in on a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game 31-31 — something Columbus never could have achieved without its lone senior starter.
“DJ just works hard all the time,” Hairston said. “That’s her character: She’s going to work hard, and if you’re going to come to beat her, you’ve got to beat her.”
Unfortunately for Columbus, Holmes County Central proved it could do just that.
A key 3 from the right wing for junior Carleigh Andrews turned out to be a dagger of sorts as the Jaguars scored seven of the first nine points in the fourth quarter.
Columbus hung around. The Falcons kept the game within five points for most of the period. But shoddy free-throw shooting prohibited them from making a real run.
Saddler missed a pair at the line with 3 minutes, 43 seconds to go and her team down four. Givens did the same with 2:51 to play and a three-point deficit. Thirty-nine seconds late, junior Makayla Rieves matched her teammates with an empty trip to the line.
Though Jackson wasn’t perfect at the stripe herself, she said nerves contributed to the poor performance from teammates who didn’t get time on this stage last season when Columbus capped a championship run with a 55-51 win over Brookhaven in Oxford. Now, the senior said, the young Falcons know what it feels like, and that can help for the future.
“I’m glad they got to experience it, because now they can prepare for next year, and they’ll know how the game is,” Jackson said.
The senior, committed to play for East Mississippi Community College next season, discussed the heartbreaking impact of playing her final game after four years with the Falcons. She and Zaria Heard were the only two seniors on this year’s Columbus team, but Rieves, King, Stewart, Saddler and post players Charity Yeates and Fredija Clark will all fill that role next season.
“It hurts because it’s my last year in this jersey, but I’ve got to move forward, and they’re going to get it done,” she said.
Inside a locker room filled with tears, Jackson and her disappointed teammates listened to the cheers of the Jaguars outside the Falcons’ gym. It was a role reversal from last season, when Columbus beat Holmes County Central by just five points in the second round in Lexington.
“We got theirs last year; they got us this year,” Hairston said. “That’s just how the ball bounces sometimes. I wish it could have ended up different, but it just didn’t.”
Hairston reflected on the end of a hectic 2020-21 season that for the Falcons was interrupted twice because of COVID-19 quarantine. Columbus rebounded strong each time it got back on the court, but ultimately, the team’s second straight title was not to be.
“It was a great season,” Hairston said. “It was a great journey trying to get where we are.”