Scooba, Miss. – Northeast Mississippi Community College's extra practice at the charity stripe paid off during its Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division opener.
The Tigers drained their last three free throw tries to account for the winning points in a 70-68 decision over East Mississippi Community College on Thursday, December 3 at Keyes T. Currie Coliseum.
Northeast compiled a 56.1 percent ledger on its free shot attempts during the pre-Thanksgiving portion of its schedule. The Tigers returned from the short holiday break with a sharp focus and were a solid 24 of 33 against the Lions.
"We've been practicing them quite a bit," said Northeast headman Cord Wright. "We've got good shooters and I think early it was just a mental thing and sometimes that's contagious. We're starting to trend to the upward side."
The charity stripe proved critical for the Tigers after they went the final seven minutes and 59 seconds of the contest without a field goal. Kendarius Smith's trey at that mark gave Northeast a 63-56 advantage.
The Tigers maintained their lead with the strength of their defense. East Mississippi, which is receiving votes in the inaugural National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings of the regular season, made only three baskets in the same closing stretch.
The last minute of the matchup was a thriller that came down to the wire. Leroy Buchanan made two free throws with 25 seconds remaining to push Northeast's advantage to 70-66.
Jahyde Gardiner raced down the floor and for an uncontested layup to cut the Lions' deficit to 70-68. East Mississippi then called a timeout with just 14 seconds showing on the clock.
The Lions got two chances to go ahead in the waning moments following a pair of J'Vaughnte Harris steals. But three-point shots by both Gardiner and Harris, whose jumper hit the back iron as time expired, were no good to secure a pivotal victory for the Tigers.
"Obviously going on the road and getting one is huge," Wright said. "I thought it was a different type of game. The competition kinda tightened and I thought our guys responded well."
Wesley Harris provided the play of the game near the midway point of the second half. He took a pass from Davon Hayes and jumped between two defenders for a beautiful one-handed slam dunk that produced salutes from the East Mississippi crowd.
"That play was huge," said Harris. "It was good momentum wise. Our blood was pumping from the adrenaline rush. Everybody just came together to pick up the competition."
Harris paced Northeast (5-3, 1-0) with a game-high 19 points. The reigning MACJC Player of the Week also recorded eight rebounds and two blocks in 26 minutes off the bench.
Smith had his third double-digit performance of the campaign with 11 points. Tray Lawson and Buchanan added 10 points and three assists apiece in a triumphant effort for the Tigers.
Northeast connected on 10 shots from beyond the arc. Six of those, including two from Smith, came within the initial nine minutes of the matchup as the Tigers built an early 21-6 lead.
The Lions' reserves registered only 12 points whereas Northeast's substitutes poured in 30 points. The Tigers also had 13 second-chance points off 15 total offensive boards.
Northeast won its debut inside the MACJC North Division for the first time since defeating Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia during the 2011-12 campaign.
(W) East Mississippi 59, Northeast 49
The Lady Lions pulled away in the final two minutes in what was a nip-and-tuck contest throughout its duration. The game featured 10 lead changes and nine instances in which the score was tied.
The Lady Tigers entered the fourth quarter with a 38-36 advantage after Bridgejae Patterson's layup that was assisted by Natasha Jones with less than 10 seconds left before the horn.
The lead lasted just over one minute until Ki-Ki Patterson made consecutive buckets to put East Mississippi ahead 40-38. Back-to-back makes by V'lenchia Farmer and Timaya Stewart quickly gave Northeast the advantage once again at 42-40.
But the Lady Lions answered with a 7-0 run that included four points from Camry Jones and a Chenya Sealey trey. East Mississippi went 9 of 10 at the charity stripe in the concluding seconds to put the matchup out of reach.
"We were in the game the whole time," said Lady Tigers head coach Brenda Mayes. "If we get those little bitty mistakes taken care of that's the basic stuff then we'll be OK."
Jones was true from long distance to give Northeast its initial lead. A Shelby Wilbanks field goal lifted the Lady Tigers ahead by a 10-9 margin at the end of the first quarter.
Northeast went up 17-16 with 4:42 remaining prior to the intermission on Tyler Shelley's three-pointer. The Lady Lions used a late basket from Patterson to take a 25-22 advantage into the locker room.
Wilbanks made three straight baskets, including two that were setup by nice passes from Christy Clark and Jones, halfway through the third period to extend the Lady Tigers' lead to its largest of the evening at 32-28.
The Northeast tandem of Jones and Stewart held Quantesha Patterson, who is the top scorer in the entire country, to her lowest output of the year to date. She had season lows of six points and five rebounds against the Lady Tigers.
"I like the fact that we did the job that we worked on in keeping her off the boards where she couldn't get putbacks," Mayes said. "We put our best defensive players on her. That was a big positive."
Walnut's Wilbanks notched her third double-double at Northeast with 13 points and a career-high 15 boards as well. Her rebounds were broken into six offensive and nine defensive.
"I've been working on boxing out a lot more because the last game I didn't get near as many rebounds as I need to," said Wilbanks. "I just keep my head up and continue to do my best in what I feel confident that I'm good at."
Patterson was the only other athlete to achieve double figures for the Lady Tigers. The Prattville (Ala.) High School graduate tallied 10 points with seven boards from the center position.
Northeast was plus-18 in rebounding margin behind the fortitude of Patterson and Wilbanks. East Mississippi had just four offensive boards compared to 18 for the Lady Tigers.
The MACJC North Division slate continues on Monday, December 7 for Northeast versus Mississippi Delta Community College. Tipoff for the women's tilt is 11 a.m. with the men to follow at approximately 1 p.m. inside Bonner Arnold Coliseum.