Starkville's Tori Rice (32) goes up for a shot against Tupelo Friday. (Kim Murrell/SDN)
By JOEL COLEMAN
Starkville High's Steven Brand watched his mid-range jumper sail through the air, hoping for it to become the game-tying basket.
Instead, it was the final shot in the Yellowjackets' second straight defeat, this one a 58-56 loss to division rival Tupelo Friday night at home in the Beehive.
As dejected as Brand was following his missed buzzer-beater, all SHS head coach Greg Carter could seem to think about was how the game shouldn't have gotten to that point to begin with.
"(Brand) got a pretty decent look from about 17 feet," said Carter. "You can't ask for much more than that with 4 seconds to go on the clock. You just hate for games to come down to that when they could have been decided with plays much earlier than that."
Much like in Starkville's previous game at Grenada six days prior, also a 58-56 loss, Carter's Jackets had their chances.
Starkville (11-4, 2-1 in Class 6A, Region 2) missed open shots and once again came up short from the free-throw line, making just 12 of their 29 shots from the charity stripe.
SHS has now missed 38 combined free throws in its last two contests.
"We've got to make some of those wide-open shots we're taking," said Carter. "We got open looks and just didn't make them. And we've got to make some free throws. We've got to convert when we get to the line. That's basically what tonight came down to."
Despite their struggles, the Jackets found a way to give themselves a chance.
In setting up the game's final play, Gavin Ware took the inbounds pass near midcourt, turned and kicked the ball out to Brand who drove inside to take his shot as time expired.
"The timing of the play was a little bit off," said Carter. "Once Gavin got it, he turned and whichever one was open he was going to throw it to them. (Brand) just happened to be the one that was open.
"He had to change directions and that cost him some time and he had to shoot the pull-up. You just have to live and die with that shot at the end."
For all the disappointment, Starkville seemed to have control of the game early. The Jackets began the night with a 12-3 run, led 18-15 after one quarter and took a 32-28 advantage into the half.
That's when Tupelo (19-2, 3-0 in Class 6A, Region 2) made the adjustments that turned the game around.
"We had to battle on the boards," said Golden Wave head coach Grant Pate. "We felt like they were beating us on the boards and beating us in transition, so we had to make adjustments at halftime. We had to get everybody involved on the boards and get everybody back in transition to stop those baskets.
"Our kids just kept believing. When things weren't going our way, we kept believing and I'm just proud of our determination."
Tori Rice did most of Starkville's damage, both in the scoring and rebounding columns. Rice was the lone Jacket to finish in double figures, scoring 18 while completing a double-double with 15 rebounds.
"He really got after it on the boards," said Carter. "He caught it in the post and scored and caught it in the high post and got to the basket. I think he, (Ware), and Chris Harris were the reason (Tupelo) went to zone in the second half."
The Golden Wave's defensive adjustment allowed them to outscore Starkville 20-10 in the third quarter to take a 48-42 lead into the game's final period.
Starkville never could recapture the lead, coming the closest on Brand's shot at the end.
"I'm real disappointed," said Carter. "We didn't get it inside as much as I would have liked, but the biggest difference in the game was the free-throw shooting. That's two games in a row that we haven't made them."
Starkville returns to the court on Monday at 4:30 p.m. when they play Vicksburg at Lanier High School in the Martin Luther King Classic.
Tupelo built a 15-8 lead through one quarter Friday at the Beehive and rode that momentum to a win over Starkville.
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"We're trying to get the girls to see that, although the score says one thing, you keep fighting," said SHS head coach Kristie Williams. "We hang our heads too soon and we hang our heads when we need to keep fighting."
The Golden Wave (10-10, 2-1 in Class 6A, Region 2) used a pressing defense to frustrate the Lady Jackets offense all night long.
Courtney Moore was the lone Starkville player to break double figures in scoring, tallying 10 points.
"The press has been our nemesis and it hurt us again tonight," said Williams. "Until we can get the ball across halfcourt and get in scoring position, we'll have games where we're down and fighting as we did tonight."
Chy Cunningham led Tupelo with a game-high 21 points.
Starkville (5-11, 1-2 in Class 6A, Region 2) returns to the court on Tuesday with a 6 p.m. home game against West Point.