Missy Gators, Neshoba Central meet in playoffs for third straight season

Published 5:26 pm Thursday, February 24, 2022

Vicksburg High girls’ basketball coach Troy Stewart isn’t sure how the Mississippi High School Activities Association determines which seeds match up with each other in the playoffs. All he knows is that, before long, his team will always line up with Neshoba Central.

For the third year in a row, and fourth time in five seasons, Vicksburg (21-7) and Neshoba Central (30-0) will meet in the MHSAA Class 5A tournament when they play Friday at 7 p.m. at VHS.

Vicksburg won in 2020 when it advanced to the Class 5A semifinals. Neshoba Central won in 2018 and 2021, the latter on the road. This one will have high stakes, with a trip to the Mississippi Coliseum and the state semifinals on the line.

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“It’s our common nemesis. We have them every year,” Stewart said. “We’ve only won one, they’ve won two, so we’re going to do everything we can this week to get prepared for them and see how things shake out.”

Neshoba Central, the Region 3-5A champion, remained undefeated by beating Lake Cormorant 102-66 in its playoff opener last week. It was the third win in a row by 30 points or more for the Rockets. They’ve only had two games this season decided by less than 10 points.

The Missy Gators have their eyes on a bigger prize than just getting to the Coliseum, but handing Neshoba Central its first loss would be a nice accomplishment.

“If you can spoil that for a team, whether it’s in the championship or not, that’s a championship moment when you break somebody’s streak like that,” Stewart said.

To overcome Neshoba Central, the Missy Gators will have to clean up some missteps that nearly ended their season last week.

They built a 22-point lead midway through the second quarter in a second-round game against Cleveland Central (12-16), only to let all of it slip away by the fourth quarter. The Missy Gators wound up hitting enough free throws down the stretch to escape with a 59-57 victory.

Janiah Caples hit three free throws in the last 90 seconds — including two with 1:26 to go to give Vicksburg the lead for good — and finished with nine points. Ja’Na Colenburg scored 15 points, Destini Sims had 13 and Layla Carter 11.

Vicksburg led 28-6 with 5 minutes left in the second quarter, but Cleveland Central chipped away and took advantage of a cold shooting spell by the Missy Gators in the second half. After scoring 28 points in the first 11 minutes, the Missy Gators scored 31 in the last 21 minutes.

Cleveland Central tied the game at 55 on two quick baskets by McKenzie Jones with 1:33 remaining, but never took the lead. Kristi Zollicoffer missed a jumper in the lane with 10 seconds left that would have tied it, and the Missy Gators got the rebound and were able to run out the clock.

“I put it more on us than anything else. We blew too many opportunities,” Stewart said. “We had wide open shots, too many turnovers when we were trying to force them to play man — we’ve got to stop turning that ball over in those situations. We made a few bad decisions. It was our fault more than anything else.”

Although frustrated by his team’s near-meltdown, Stewart was happy that they were able to dig deep and find a way to win. Vicksburg’s last field goal was a short shot by Sims with 5:18 left. It scored its last 10 points at the free throw line and was 11-for-16 overall in the fourth quarter.

“I thought we did really well in the fourth (quarter) on free throws. That’s the best fourth-quarter free throw showing we’ve had this year,” Stewart said. “We’ve got some game closers, so I’m not concerned about those fourth quarter free throws when it matters, because I trust them. I’m worrying about what’s going to happen next.”

And now, what’s next is a showdown with what appears to be the best team in Class 5A. It’ll take some work to get ready, Stewart said, but the Missy Gators have shown they have the capability to stand alongside — and even beat — the best.

“If we play our best game, we can play or compete at a higher level than anybody in the state. I don’t have any question about that,” Stewart said. “It’s just getting everybody firing at the same time. We’re going to get them all firing at the same time and we’ll be in good shape.”

• Friday, 7 p.m.
• MHSAA Class 5A girls basketball state tournament, third round
• Tickets are available online only through gofan.co. The game will be livestreamed on the NFHS Network.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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