Missy Gators win fourth consecutive region championship

Published 1:22 am Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Vicksburg Missy Gators came to the middle of the court, posed for a team photo, and accepted a trophy. Then they all put up four fingers to show who is still No. 1 in Region 4-5A.

Behind a season-high 20 points and nine rebounds from Kierra James, the Missy Gators defeated Callaway 53-44 on Friday to win the MHSAA Region 4-5A girls’ basketball tournament championship for the fourth consecutive year.

“I can’t put into words. This is emotional, man,” Vicksburg coach Troy Stewart said. “That’s a history-making unit in there. I hope we continue, and work our tails off, and get the ultimate goal, but I’m as proud as I can be of that group right there.”

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The Missy Gators (25-5) earned a first-round bye in the Class 5A state tournament, and will await the winner between New Hope and Holmes County Central. Vicksburg will play at home next Friday at 6 p.m.

“The way the state is set up, it’s a huge advantage,” Stewart said of receiving the bye. “When we have to go far north it’s a three-hour ride. That ride hurts you getting off the bus and having to play that day.”

Callaway (23-6) had a 10-game winning streak snapped and will face Cleveland Central in the first round of the state tournament on Monday night.

Vicksburg’s only loss since mid-December was against Callaway on Jan. 17, and it was eager to avenge it. The Chargers weren’t about to make it easy.

Callaway did an excellent job of denying open looks to Vicksburg’s outside shooters. The Missy Gators were just 2-for-11 from 3-point range, with both makes coming from JaNa Colenburg in the fourth quarter.

The Missy Gators were able to adjust, though, thanks to post players James, Cynia Johnson and Jelisa Tyler. The trio combined for 28 points and 18 rebounds.

Guard Janiah Caples also had 13 points and eight rebounds.

“They did a good job of getting to the ball to (James) when she was feeling it. It was a good team effort,” Stewart said. “It makes us extremely hard to defend. When you bring a fourth element and a fifth element like that, if they’re producing we’re pretty much unstoppable.”

James had the biggest contribution. She’s been mostly a role player this season, but stepped up in the most important game so far. She scored all 12 of Vicksburg’s points in the second quarter.

“It was the game plan. I knew that I had to step up tonight for us to win that game. I had bad games all season, but this one right here I knew I had to step up,” said James, who also had three steals.

The biggest lead for either team through the first three quarters was seven points, and then the Missy Gators finally gained some separation coming down the stretch.

James and Layla Carter both turned steals into layups, and then Colenburg made her first 3-pointer of the game with 5:35 remaining to put the Missy Gators ahead 47-35. The lead didn’t get any bigger than that, but Callaway never got back within even two possessions, either.

“We wanted them to play us man-to-man. The plan was, as soon as they went man-to-man we were going to take our biggest guard and put on their smallest guard and put her in the post,” Stewart said. “They came out of a timeout and we went straight to it, and that’s what bumped it up to eight points and it kept rolling from there.”

And now the Missy Gators are rolling into the state tournament — again — as region champions. They reached the Class 5A semifinals in 2020, then bowed out in the second round in 2021 and 2022.

Getting over the hump to win a state championship, not just a region one, is their ultimate goal, but they’ll still take this weekend to enjoy their first trophy of this postseason.

“It means a lot,” said Carter, a senior guard who finished with six points and five rebounds. “We’ve been playing together since we were in seventh grade, the same team, same people, same energy. It’s our senior year, so we want to win. We’ve got to do what it takes to win.”

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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