TIGERS WIN REGION 23 CHAMPIONSHIP WITH UNBELIEVABLE FINISH
The Northeast Mississippi Community College men’s basketball program is adding a new trophy to the already full display case within the brand new Earline “Woodsie” Woods Hospitality Suite at Bonner Arnold Coliseum.
The Tigers captured the 2016 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 23 Tournament championship with a thrilling 74-73 triumph over East Mississippi Community College on Saturday, March 5 inside A.E. Wood Coliseum.
“It’s so surreal right now,” said Northeast head coach Cord Wright. “I’m so excited for our guys. I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for this team. I’ve got winning kids and they fight to the end.”
The Tigers (18-9) had to do exactly that in their third win in as many meetings this season between the two Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division rivals.
Kendarius Smith was fouled while dribbling up the court with 45 seconds remaining. He made both free tries in a double bonus opportunity to give Northeast the lead once again at 72-71.
The Lions (20-8) responded on their ensuing possession when Anterio McKines drained a shot from just inside the arc to make the score 73-72 with only 12 seconds showing on the clock.
Northeast, which had zero timeouts left, raced down the court and accidentally stepped out of bounds with 2.3 seconds to go. However, East Mississippi returned the favor by throwing the inbounds pass down the court and out of play before it was touched so the Tigers got the ball back in front of their own bench.
Smith tossed the ball in to Leroy Buchanan, whose three-point attempt was partially blocked by McKines. The tipped ball landed right in the hands of Wesley Harris, who laid it into the hoop as the final horn sounded to send Northeast’s coaches, athletes and fans into a frenzied celebration with a dog pile on the north end of the court.
“I just saw it was floating and it was going to drop right in my area,” Harris said. “I don’t even know what to say or think. All I wanted to do was make my team happy. That was awesome.”
The entire second half kept those that traveled to the campus of Mississippi College on the edge of their seats. Neither squad led by more than two possessions during the last 20 minutes that also featured eight lead changes.
The Tigers entered the locker room with a 43-38 advantage, but the Lions used an 11-0 run to take their initial lead since the 18:24 mark of the opening period. Harris finally accounted for the first points of the half for Northeast with 16:53 to play.
A quick spurt of seven unanswered points allowed the Tigers to jump ahead by a 54-50 margin. Harris had a field goal and two free throws in that stretch while Desmin Harris got a friendly roll on a long distance shot.
A pair of makes at the charity stripe by Tray Lawson gave Northeast a 68-62 advantage with under three minutes to go, but the Lions accumulated 10 of the next 12 points to set the stage for Wesley Harris’ heroics.
Lawson was pivotal in the early stages for the Tigers. He tallied six of his 12 total points during the first five minutes of the matchup to help Northeast build a 14-4 lead.
“Coach (Wright) said it was going to be my night,” said Lawson. “Everybody decided they were going to step forward and go all out. It was a family thing and we pulled it off. It’s all love.”
The Tigers maintained a healthy advantage prior to the intermission on the strength of three-point shooting. Northeast drained eight treys in the first half with three of those coming from Wesley Harris.
Wesley Harris topped all players in the contest with 27 points. He was 10 of 17 from the floor overall, five of nine from beyond the arc and added two free throws to his ledger in three tries as well.
Desmin Harris added 13 points to complete the list of double-digit scorers for the Tigers. Lawson paced Northeast with a team-high six rebounds while Smith distributed a game-best seven assists.
“We validated everything,” Wright said. “We’ve been through a lot of good times and some bad times. I’m so proud of them for hanging in there and this is the reward of it all.”
This is the eighth regional championship in program history and the first since the 1999-2000 campaign. That squad was directed by future NJCAA All-American Eric Batchelor and coached by MACJC Hall of Famer Mike Lewis.
The Tigers qualified for the 69th annual NJCAA Division I National Tournament with their semifinal victory over Northwest Mississippi Community College. First round games begin at the historic Sports Arena on Monday, March 14.
Sports Information Director
Northeast Mississippi Community College