By JOEL COLEMAN
COLUMBUS – The result wasn't satisfying, but the East Oktibbeha girls basketball team proved Friday they can hang with the state's elite.
Shondra Nichols hit three clutch free throws late to send the the Lady Titans into overtime, but the undefeated Class 4A Noxubee County Tigerettes ultimately defeated East Oktibbeha 50-47 in a first-round matchup at the West Lowndes Tournament.
"It feels great to know that you can hang with the best," said Nichols. "It gets our confidence up. We're trying to get to Jackson, so tonight shows that we can make it."
East Oktibbeha (1-4) had a shot to pull the upset thanks in large part to Nichols' performance under pressure.
Down 42-39 with just 9 seconds left in regulation, Nichols was fouled trying for a game-tying 3-pointer, sending her to the charity stripe with the game on the line.
"I just sat there and took my time," said Nichols. "There was no pressure. It's not everything to me. It's just stuff that we do daily in practice. I just took what I do in practice and transformed it into what I did in the game."
Nichols, who finished with a game-high 19 points, sank all three shots to set up the extra period.
Then in overtime, East Oktibbeha grabbed a 46-44 lead with just 1:29 to play on a basket by Lydia Stevenson.
Noxubee County (5-0) responded with a 6-1 run over the game's final 54 seconds to escape with the win.
"There was just misunderstandings (in overtime)," said Nichols. "We didn't communicate well. We knew what to do, but we just didn't carry it out."
East Oktibbeha head coach Randy Brooks agreed.
"Metal errors cost us," said Brooks. "We had a big turnover there at the end and just had some lapses on defense and lapses on offense. When we were up, we should have just pulled the ball back out and ran some time off the clock. Instead, we went down and tried to shoot the ball and messed up before I could get a timeout."
To even get an extra period, the Lady Titans had to battle back from a first quarter in which Noxubee County jumped out to a 13-2 advantage.
East Oktibbeha closed the gap to 22-13 at the half and 29-23 after three quarters before completely erasing Noxubee County's lead just prior to the final buzzer of the fourth quarter.
Brooks said falling behind early was a result of his team not adhering to his coaching plans.
"We're a pressing, trapping team," said Brooks. "Win or lose, we're going to press and trap. I'm trying to get the team to buy into that defensive system because that's what brought us back into the game. (Noxubee County) would turn the ball over and we were converting those turnovers into points."
Ultimately, despite the late-game surge, Brooks' team couldn't put away the Tigerettes.
Keechen Foote led Noxubee County with 12 points.
Quanisha Doss put up 11 for the Lady Titans.
East Oktibbeha's loss pushes them into today's 4 p.m. girls consolation game, a matchup that Brooks feels is promising after the confidence the Lady Titans gained in Friday's narrow defeat.
"I told the girls before the game, (Noxubee County) has more kids in its graduating class than we have in our whole school," said Brooks. "We had a chance to knock off one of the bigger schools. When we get that chance, we need to take advantage of it."
Noxubee County 74,
East Oktibbeha 48
COLUMBUS – East Oktibbeha just can't shake the early-game blues.
The Titans fell into a 37-16 hole at halftime and couldn't find any semblance of rhythm in falling to Noxubee County 74-48 Friday in a first-round game at the West Lowndes Tournament.
"We got off to a slow start like it seems we do each game," said East Oktibbeha head coach Barnett Robinson. "We just dig ourselves in a hole and we can't get out."
Casey Neal was the only Titans player to tally more than two points over the game's first two quarters.
Neal put up eight prior to the intermission en route to finishing with a team-high 18 points.
East Oktibbeha's sluggish start was in large part a result of the Tigers' in-your-face, pressure defense.
"That's the main thing we try to do," said Noxubee County head coach T.J. Billups. "We try to create points out of pressure. We try to throw a lot of different defenses and just play good defense and make opponents turn the ball over."
Billups' strategy worked.
East Oktibbeha was held scoreless over the game's first four and a half minutes, finally earning points on a Neal 3-pointer with 3:30 left in the opening quarter.
While Neal's shot finally put a crooked number on the scoreboard, Noxubee County (3-1) didn't let it garner any momentum for the Titans as the Tigers led 19-7 after the first period.
Robinson struggled to explain why his team continues to stumble out of the gates early in games.
"I think it's just a mindset," said Robinson. "They need to know they can't come out slow and just expect to pick it up. It's something they are going to have to want to do."
Still, Robinson gave a tip of the hat to Noxubee County.
"They pushed the ball," said Robinson. "They put us in bad positions, they got to the free-throw line a lot, and they made a lot of free throws. They also just out-rebounded us."
The Titans (0-5) seemingly regrouped in the second half.
Neal and Demario Hill, who finished with 13 points, each had big performances after the intermission, giving East Oktibbeha a mini-surge that Billups said was his team's only hiccup of the contest.
"We let down for just 6 or 7 minutes," said Billups. "Other than that, our effort was really there tonight. We still made minor mistakes, but we had good effort."
The loss puts East Oktibbeha in today's 5:30 p.m. boys consolation game.
Robinson says his team hopes to come out strong and halt their five-game losing skid.
"There's a couple of guys standing up saying they are tired of losing," said Robinson. "But it's going to take a total team effort."