JACKSON — Before the West Lowndes girls basketball team took the court for Monday’s MHSAA Class 1A semifinal against Biggersville, coach Takeea Bozeman reminded her team of one important advantage the Panthers held over the Lions.
“We were here last year,” the fifth-year West Lowndes coach told her players. “They were not.”
Even though the Panthers were soundly beaten by eventual champion Pine Grove in last year’s state semifinals, the experience they took away from playing on the same stage in the same venue — the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson — helped West Lowndes hang on for a 44-40 win over Biggersville on Monday.
“This was the same team that played last year,” Bozeman said after the Panthers’ win. “The nerves were still there; the fear wasn’t there this year because we’d already played on this court.”
Of course, several West Lowndes players saw little to no time on the court last season with seniors Marvaysha Seals, Ashanti Williams, Takara Givens and Lauren Bell on the roster. But Tydajasha Hood, Averi Sanders, Nenah Young and Quankeria Halbert all received serious minutes as juniors last year. Along with senior Gracie Wells, they formed an all-senior starting five Monday morning.
“It means a lot to us because we’ve been playing ball with each other since seventh grade,” said Hood, who led the Panthers with 17 points in the victory. “We’ve been working for this moment.
Against a Biggersville team fielding just one junior and no seniors on the roster, West Lowndes’ experience — and size — proved superior.
Lions coach Cliff Little depicted a starting lineup full of “nervy” sophomores, which could explain Biggersville’s early shooting struggles. Little said the Lions took more outside shots in the first quarter Monday than they typically take in a normal game — and they failed to connect on nearly all of them.
West Lowndes, meanwhile, arrived at the venue earlier than last year to hoist some extra shots pregame. The Panthers hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter en route to building a nine-point halftime lead.
Little said playing in the cavernous Coliseum can “psych out” players gracing its floor for the first time, and that was probably the case for his Lions on Monday.
“This environment can do a lot to you,” he said. “There’s no doubt I think that probably helped (West Lowndes).”
Still, the Panthers weren’t completely immune to the pressure. When Biggersville broke through and took a one-point lead with under two minutes to go, West Lowndes’ players looked tense. Sophomore Ti’Teyana Brewer, who had just fouled out, fretted on the bench flanked by two equally concerned teammates.
“We were nervous, but we had to keep our composure,” Hood said.
She certainly did, hitting a tying free throw with 1:22 to go after her first one bounced out of the cylinder.
“I knew I had to put an arc on it,” Hood said. “I had to make it.”
Hood followed up the make with what proved to be the winning layup with 48 seconds to go, and senior Averi Sanders made a game-saving steal and fast-break score to close out the contest.
The two plays were final reminders of what West Lowndes had and Biggersville did not.
“We just had to use our experience throughout the game to win,” Bozeman said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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