The high school basketball season ended earlier this month with both Pine Grove and Ripley girls bringing a state championship back to Tippah County. It marked the first time in history that two teams from Tippah County won a basketball state title in the same year.
With a few weeks to reflect back on what was a great season for all our area basketball teams, I decided now was a great time to share some of the most memorable moments, games and performances from a basketball season to remember for both Tippah and Benton County teams.
Favorite Boys Game
I cover so many games over the course of a four and a half month season that sometimes it is hard to keep up with where all I've been and what all I've seen. Thinking back on some of my favorite boys games to cover this season, there was plenty that came to mind.
Ripley had two incredible games, one on the road against Saltillo in the last week of the regular season, where Asa Howard buried a game-winning 3-pointer with just a few seconds left, and the other where Howard's heroics led to a 48-45 win over Pontotoc in the Class 4A quarterfinals at Mississippi Valley State.
Another game that crossed my mind was Ashland's miraculous win over in-county and Div. 3-1A rival Hickory Flat. Ashland freshman Aaron Greer connected on a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the fourth to send the game into overtime, where senior Myles Moorhead ended the game with a layup as the buzzer sounded for a 47-45 win.
But to me, my favorite boys game to cover was Falkner versus Pine Grove. I know you're thinking which game, since the two teams faced off four times this season. Truthfully, I could've gone with any of them since all four games were extremely well played and provided a ton of drama. But one matchup between them stood out above the rest—their game at the Tippah County Tournament.
Just two nights prior to their game at the tournament, Pine Grove took their first win over Falkner as they faced off in a Div. 1-1A game, where the Panthers used a 46-point performance from Carson Rowland to win, 69-59.
With the loss fresh on their minds, Falkner stormed out of the gate and looked poised for a bounce back win. The Eagles opened a 21-8 lead in the first quarter and was in control of the game up until the six-minute mark of the third quarter.
Daylon Crum split a pair of free throws at the line in the third for a 19-point lead with 6:31 left. From there, the momentum shifted in Pine Grove's favor. The Panthers closed the third on a 12-2 run and they cut the deficit to nine entering the fourth.
A layup from Mason Bullock gave the Panthers their first lead since the first quarter at 49-48 with 1:25 to play in the fourth. In the final minute, Falkner's Cam Smith drove to the basket for a layup plus the foul as the Eagles held a two-point lead. Then, Pine Grove's Carson Rowland was fouled with four seconds left, sending him to the line for a one-and-one opportunity. Rowland happened to be the only player on the floor that knew it was a one-and-one as he gathered the miss on his free throw attempt and laid it back in to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, Jack Hudson buried his second three-pointer to cap a 5-0 start to the period. Falkner senior Chauncey Jackson scored on a layup plus the foul for a three-point play of his own to cut the lead back to two. Hudson connected on his third three-pointer from the corner as Pine Grove held a 61-56 lead with 1:50 to play. Again, Jackson responded with an old-fashioned three-point play with 57 seconds left to keep Falkner in striking distance. Later, Smith went coast-to-coast for the layup with 33 second left to the game again at 61-61. With 12 seconds left, Rowland drove to the front of the rim for the game-winning layup.
Favorite Girls Game
It would've been easy to just have picked either of the state championship games as my favorite game to cover this season because championship games are just so much fun. The energy in the building is just palpable and makes for one of the most exciting things to cover.
As fun as both games were inside The Pavilion at Ole Miss, I have another game in mind even though the final results didn't carry the same implications that a championship game might have.
Walnut found out a lot about themselves in a victory over South Pontotoc. Most of the year, the team had depended on the scoring of junior Claire Leak and freshman Madi Kate Vuncannon to help them win games. But with the duo sitting on the bench after fouling out in the first overtime period, the Lady Wildcats showed some poise and played as a team to come away with a 64-60 double overtime win.
The Lady Wildcats entered the locker room at halftime tied 20-20 with the Lady Cougars. The slow offensive start was due to South Pontotoc running a triangle-and-two defense, shadowing the every movement of both Leak and Vuncannon. Vuncannon ended the first half with just four points as Leak hit a 3-pointer for her only points in the first two quarters.
Leak opened the second half with her second three of the night but South Pontotoc came back with a 5-0 run to to take their first lead since the 3:09 mark of the first quarter. Walnut's response was a 6-0 run that gifted them 29-25 lead entering the fourth quarter. All nine points of the third came from either Leak or Vuncannon.
In the fourth quarter, senior Aleia Peterson started to get herself going along with Leak. Peterson scored six of Walnut's first 10 points of the fourth with Leak adding four points from the free throw line. The charity stripe proved to not be in favor of the Lady Wildcats. Walnut shot 26-of-42 from the free throw line on the night.
With 15 seconds left in the fourth, Vuncannon sunk two free throws to make it a four-point lead, otherwise a two possession game. But a foul sent South Pontotoc to the line where they knocked down a pair to get within two with eight seconds left. Vuncannon then split a pair at the line setting up a buzzer beating three by Rebecca Pilcher to tie the game at 45-45 to send the game into overtime.
South Pontotoc hit three free throws to begin the first overtime period. Leak split a pair from the line, followed by a split pair of free throws from the Lady Cougars to hold the lead at three. With 1:26 left, Leak fouled out of the game with 17 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
With Leak out, others had to step up—and they did. Laura Leigh Hughes buried a game-tying three-pointer with 1:00 left followed by a go-ahead layup from Vuncannon with 28 seconds left for the two-point lead. Vuncannon then fouled out as South Pontotoc split a pair of free throws to cut the lead down to one. Peterson stepped up to the line and drained a pair of shots with 14 seconds left for a three-point lead. Again, the pesky Lady Cougars sent the game-tying three-point shot through the net with two seconds left to send the game into double overtime.
Now the Lady Wildcats were tasked to play the final four-minute period without their two best players on momentum on the Lady Cougars side. The combination of Hughes and Peterson stepped up in the final period. Peterson scored six points with Hughes adding three points, a block, steal and assist that turned the game around. South Pontotoc connected on a three-pointer with 11 seconds left to pull within three of the lead. Olivia Edgeston hit the second of a pair of free throws with three seconds left to put the game away for good.
That game showed such resolve for a young group of Lady Wildcats and maybe the best team effort that I seen all year from them.
Most Impressive Boys Win
The Ripley and Pontotoc boys game is one that I gave serious consideration here. Not because Ripley was some severe underdog, in fact they were ranked ahead of Pontotoc in the Daily Journal's area rankings. But in person, looking out onto the court, the Tigers looked to be a real disadvantage. Pontotoc had all the size and athleticism that a coach could dream of. I've covered Rolley Tipler's teams in his time at Ashland. That guy can flat out coach and I knew he would have a great game plan for Ripley. So I was worried for the Tigers' chances once I stepped into the arena but the way Adam Kirk gets his teams to defend and compete on both ends of the court is super impressive and they were able to pull out the win.
But I go back to Pine Grove's win over Biggersville in the Div. 1-1A Tournament championship game at Booneville as the most impressive victory I saw in person this season.
The Lions handed Pine Grove their only two losses inside of 1-1A play this season as they were considered one of the top teams in all of Class 1A.
Pine Grove led 21-20 at halftime as leading score Carson Rowland dealt with foul trouble in the first half.
Biggersville came out in the third quarter with a little more intensity and pieced together a 11-0 run to start the second half, building a 10-point lead, the largest for either team in the game. With a double digit deficit, Pine Grove turned to their star in Rowland and senior Mason Bullock to guide them back. Rowland ended the run with a layup but was quickly answered on the other end by Biggersville's Telick Barnett. Rowland then gathered his own miss for a putback and assisted to corner 3-pointers to Bullock for an 8-0 run to pull the score to 33-31. Biggersville's Hunter Stacy scored on an old-fashioned three-point play late in the third but Rowland responded with a 3-pointer to send the Panthers to the fourth quarter down 36-34.
The Lions scored four quick points to start the fourth for a six-point lead. Rowland and Cade Wilder combined for a 7-0 run, including another Rowland trey for their first lead of the second half at 41-40 with 5:27 to play.
The two teams traded the lead back-and-forth before Rowland went 4-for-4 from the charity stripe for the 47-44 lead. Pine Grove held on to that lead the rest of the game with a layup and two free throws from John Bullock down the stretch as Rowland picked up his fifth foul. Wilder sealed the game, splitting a pair of free throws with two second left.
Most Impressive Girls Win
This one may have been the easiest to choose from. To me, their is one clear game that was the most impressive team performance that I seen this past season.
Ripley's dismantling of perennial power Choctaw Central at the Tangle on the Trail in Pontotoc was eye-opening to those who hadn't yet bought stock into the Lady Tigers.
Ripley knocked out the Lady Warriors 59-41 behind the play of their leading scorer, Siarra Jackson. Jackson shined above the talent on the floor. Jackson notched 37 points as the Lady Warriors attempted to find ways to slow her down. Jackson collected 10 rebounds to go with her game-high scoring total and a double-double.
Equally as impressive as Jackson's scoring was point guard Amelya Hatch's all-around effort, especially on the defensive end. Choctaw Central features one of the state's best players in junior Meloney Thames, who was named a Dandy Dozen by the Clarion Ledger before the season's start. Thames along with sharpshooter Tia'rain Saunders dealt with early foul trouble which led them to the bench. But when Thames stepped back on the floor, it was Hatch that took on the challenge of guarding her, holding the standout to zero points for the entire game.
Offensively, Hatch scored just four points but dished out eight assists and limited turnovers against the Lady Warriors' full court pressure.
Entering the fourth, Ripley led 44-38 where Jackson finished off the Lady Warriors along with stiff defense by the Lady Tigers. Choctaw Central failed to connect on a field goal in the fourth, hitting just three free throws. Jackson poured in 11 points as Hatch added a layup with Summer Kirkman's two free throws to outscore the Lady Warriors 15-3 in the final period.
That performance only confirmed my thought at the time that Ripley girls were the best team in all 4A. And well, you know how the story ended.
Most Dominant Individual Boys Performance
This one is as close as it can get to being a tie between two different performances from two outstanding players.
Jesus Ruedas has been a terror for opposing point guards over the last four years. I've seen him time and time again rip the ball away from whoever he was guarding and give his team extra possessions. But in a 65-59 overtime win against Potts Camp at the Tangle on the Trail, Ruedas had the most dominating defensive performance I've ever witness with 11 steals to go along with a game-high 18 points. Ruedas was causing suc a problem, that the Cardinals had to resort to allowing their six-foot-seven center bring the ball up the floor because Ruedas was causing too many turnovers if their point guard brought the ball up the floor.
Offensively though, Carson Rowland takes the cake for the most impressive performance I've seen this year. I mentioned it earlier but his 46-point performance against Falkner was a sight to behold. The Eagles just simply had no answer for him. Rowland's career night came off of his aggressive, downhill attacking style of play that leads to a lot of layup attempts for the sophomore. But as much as he got to the rim, his three-point shooting was on that night, making him one of the tougher guards around when he has it going from deep.
Rowland also had eight rebounds and five assists to add to the stat sheet. The sophomore now has two more years to try and piece together a performance that could top the one he put on in Falkner that night.
Most Dominant Individual Girls Performance
Siarra Jackson's performance against Choctaw Central is up their on this list but Hickory Flat's R'Daztiny Harris put on two of the most impressive performances of the season across the entire state.
I wasn't there in person but after I scrolled through Twitter to check for some scores, I seen the update that the Lady Rebels held on for a 73-72 overtime win over Myrtle in Div. 3-1A play. In the tweet was a stat line that is nearly impossible to recreate on a video game. Harris carried the Lady Rebels with 49 points and 15 rebounds to easily take the prize of the most impressive performance of the season.
One performance that I did see in person though was her last, in a quarterfinals loss to eventual state champion Pine Grove. The Lady Panthers are obviously known for their ferocious defensive play over the years that Katie Bates has been in charge. Pine Grove's defense had no way of stopping Harris that night though. Determined to lead her team, the ICC signee poured in her team's first 38 points as Hickory Flat remained competitive until the final minutes of the game.
It truly is hard to put into words how hard that is to do. I've covered all four of Pine Grove's state championship runs. They've never had a player do that to them.
Harris finished the season as the state's leading scorer at 27.2 points per game.