BY GENE PHELPS
COLUMBUS - It was painfully obvious to Starkville that Tupelo's Amber Jackson had listened to her coach, Stephanie Murphy, loud and clear.
The talented sophomore scored 32 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Lady Golden Wave to a convincing 66-45 victory against Starkville on Tuesday night in the opening round of the Region 2-5A tournament.
"She is a gifted athlete," Starkville coach Kristie Williams said. "That's one of the better games I've seen her play."
"I've been chewing Amber out for about a week," the second-year Lady Wave coach said, then smiled. "I didn't think she had been playing up to her ability.
"She stepped it up tonight and played the biggest game of her career."
The 5-foot-8 guard couldn't have picked a better night to record a double-double. The win kept Tupelo's season alive and assured the Lady Wave of a berth in next week's North Mississippi 5A tournament.
Tupelo, which improved to 15-13, will play South Panola in Friday's 6:30 p.m. region championship game. South Panola edged Columbus 61-55 in overtime on Tuesday night.
"Coach said that I needed to step up and play," said Jackson, who leads the team averaging 13 points a game. "She told me I needed to have a big game. I was just fired up tonight."
Jackson scored two crucial field goals on layups in the final two minutes of the third quarter to give Tupelo a 14-point lead, moments after the Lady Jackets had cut the Wave's lead to eight points, 43-35.
It was a Jackson 3-pointer to start the second quarter that gave Tupelo an 18-8 lead on its way to a 35-24 halftime advantage.
Murphy was surprised with her young team's 21-point decision.
"Every game this year's been a battle for us," said Murphy, who led Tupelo to the 5A state championship game last season, her first at THS. "I'm in shock. I thought we played great defense. We did a great job blocking out.
"For a young team to advance in the playoffs is a big accomplishment. It's been a rough year. I was proud of their effort tonight."
Maggie McFerrin, a junior guard, returned to the lineup after missing two games last week with the flu. She scored 15 points.
Junior forward Mandy Collins added 11 rebounds to pace Tupelo on the boards.
Kedesha Poe paced Starkville with 13 points.
Wave moving on
Tupelo's boys are hanging around for more of the postseason party this season.
The Golden Wave, first-round losers in this tournament the last two seasons, defeated Columbus on its home court 61-52 in the opening round.
"This is a tough place to play," Tupelo coach David Ball said. "Great teams get eliminated every year in the first round in 5A basketball. That was us the last two years.
"The guys made up their minds we weren't going to let that happen."
Tupelo, which improved to 19-6, connected on 18-of-20 free throws in the final four minutes to seal the victory. Jamie Ingram's 11 points and Devin Shannon's 10 paced Tupelo.
"When you get a chance late, you've got to put a game on ice," Ball said. "We've got good free throw shooters."
Josh Carothers scored 14 to lead the Falcons, 18-10, who were confused by Tupelo's combination of man-to-man and zone defenses.
The win sets up a rematch against rival Starkville in Friday's 7:30 p.m. boys championship game. The teams split during the regular season.
Plenty of sting
There was pregame talk concerning the game-time health of Starkville's 6-8 Latavious Williams, who had a sore knee.
It's fine. Williams scored 34 points, 28 in the second half, to lead the top-seeded Yellowjackets to a 64-44 win against South Panola.
Starkville, formerly the state's No. 1-ranked team before losses to Tupelo and Aberdeen, improved to 22-2 overall.