Brandon boys, Pearl girls win Hattiesburg Coca-Cola Classic Championships

HATTIESBURG – Brandon boys basketball coach Frederick Barnes knows what lies ahead once 2021 turns into 2022.

That’s why he wanted his Bulldogs to come down to Hattiesburg High and get two games against quality opposition before tackling the rigors of region 5-6A play.

It took a while Wednesday night, but Brandon accomplished its mission, defeating the host Tigers 71-52 in the championship of the Hattiesburg Coca-Cola Classic at Watkins Gymnasium. 

It was almost a carbon copy of Tuesday’s opener in the tournament, a 71-51 victory over Pascagoula, as the fourth-ranked Bulldogs improved to 14-3 overall. Hattiesburg dropped to 6-7.

“We came out yesterday and had a pretty good Pascagoula team that was ranked in the preseason top five, and we were really up for that game,” said Barnes. 

“And we thought that was the championship. We weren’t ready to come out her today and play basketball.” 

In fact, the Tigers took the opening tipoff and immediately got a thunderous alley-oop to junior Darrin Johnson for a quick 2-0 lead.

Senior Isaiah Morey quickly tied it up for Brandon with a short jumper from the right side, but the Bulldogs had trouble getting going after that.

Brandon missed 3-point shots on three consecutive possessions, lost a steal, missed another short shot, missed a free throw and had a second foul shot waved off for a lane violation before senior Terrell Dixon began to right the ship.

Dixon drove the baseline for a go-ahead basket, then converted a missed 3-point shot into a fast-break slam to put the Bulldogs on track.

“We weren’t mentally locked-in in the first half,” said Dixon, who is a speedy 6-foot-6. “At first, I saw my outside was working, then I had to go in and get close.”

Hattiesburg, meanwhile, got what it wanted offensively, but missed several close shots and lay-ups that cost the Tigers opportunities to stay with the quicker, taller Bulldogs. 

Indeed, Hattiesburg missed 14 straight shots before hitting their last shot of the first quarter and trailed 12-4 after the first eight minutes.

“The early plan was to slow it down, keep it close and not give them so many run-out opportunities,” said Hattiesburg coach Ernie Watson. “We kind of did that, but we couldn’t score. That’s what hurt us in the first quarter. 

“I think if we’d stayed patient throughout the game, we could have changed the dynamics of the game as far as slowing the pace down. But they’re one of the top five or six teams in the state. They’re long and athletic, and they can play.”

It was Dixon who kept the Tigers at bay in the second quarter, throwing down a major-league slam to put Brandon up 21-7, then converted a fast break into another slam dunk after Hattiesburg went on a 7-0 run to climb back into the game.

“That’s our game, just attack downhill,” said Dixon, who had 12 of his 20 points in the first half. “If they can’t stop it going downhill, why not keep going? We’ve just got to stay locked-in and keep playing hard.”

Brandon led at halftime 23-14, but Barnes wasn’t happy with his team’s play, and made the decision to turn up the heat on defense in the second half.

“We went in the locker room and got our heads settled down and we were able to go ahead and put some points up,” said Barnes.

“When we came out after halftime, I said, ‘we’re going man-to-man, and I want y’all to get out there and challenge them.’ And they responded to the call.”

It helped, too, that senior Ismail Rashid got hot in the second half, and that in turn ignited the Bulldogs on offense. Brandon converted 10 of 15 shots from the field in the third quarter, most of them from inside three feet.

Rashid had 11 of his 20 points in the third quarter, getting a pair of lay-ups on drives to the basket, plus a 10-foot jumper, then he stepped out and swished a trey from the right side to put Brandon up 38-24.

“My teammates just set me up in the right spots,” said Rashid. “I just had to cut through and make the lay-ups. 

“Everybody plays solid defense on this team. We need to work on not fouling, but everybody does a good job of rebounding, boxing out and all that stuff. What we play depends on the situation. (Hattiesburg) couldn’t handle the zone press, so we got in it and stay with it.”

The dagger, though, came from junior Marcel Bridges, who beat the third-quarter buzzer with a 3-pointer from the right side to give Brandon a 47-31 lead heading into the final period. Bridges finished with 16 points, 13 coming in the second half.

“We have a veteran team; most of these guys played together last year,” said Barnes. “They understand sharing the ball, sharing the wealth and sharing the glory. And that’s what it’s all about, getting the win.”

Brandon’s region foes include Petal, Meridian and Oak Grove, all of whom have quality programs,

“It’s a tough bunch,” said Barnes. “I think we play in the toughest region in the state of Mississippi. “

Hattiesburg, with a young team that is retooling, didn’t back down, and actually played its best in the fourth quarter, converting 7 of 13 shots from the field, although the Tigers did commit nine turnovers in the period.

The Tigers have a tough road in their own region, with West Jones, Laurel and Wayne County to contend with.

“Nobody in our region is as good as Brandon, Oak Grove, Petal and Meridian, and we’ve played all four of them,” said Watson. “We’re going to be prepared, as far as toughness and being ready to play.”

Junior Jabar Walker led Hattiesburg with 16 points, 10 coming in the fourth quarter, and Johnson had 14 points.

In the girls championship game, Pearl overcome a sluggish start with a spectacular second half and held off Hattiesburg in the final seconds for a 46-45 victory.

The Lady Tigers (6-7) jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, and led 11-2 before the Lady Pirates got going, overcoming eight turnovers in the process of a 7-0 run to end the first quarter.

Pearl (9-5) was able to tie it three times in the second quarter, but Hattiesburg took a 20-16 lead into halftime, and increased the advantage to 29-22 midway through the third quarter.

However, the Lady Pirates took over from there, closing the quarter on a 9-2 run to tie it up 31-31 going into the fourth quarter, and they kept right on going, opening the final period with a 9-0 run to take a 40-31 lead.

Pearl seemed to have things well in hand, when point guard Tessa Jenkins, an eighth-grader, hit a fast-break layup to give the Lady Pirates a 46-38 lead. 

But Hattiesburg got a pair of buckets by senior Sharayah Graham, while Pearl turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions. The last one, with 11 seconds to play, gave the Lady Tigers the opportunity for a 3-pointer by sophomore India Lee.

However, Hattiesburg had no more time outs and Pearl was able to run the final three seconds off the clock for the victory.

Jenkins led Pearl with 16 points and Marissa Washington added 11 points. Graham finished with 19 points for Hattiesburg to lead all scorers.

In the consolation games, North Forrest’s girls rolled over Jefferson Davis County 64-50, and Pascagoula took the boys game over JDC 57-34. 

Stan Caldwell

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