By JOEL COLEMAN
CRAWFORD – At one point this season, the playoffs looked like a remote possibility for a struggling East Oktibbeha boys basketball team.
Now, not only are the Titans in postseason play, they've advanced.
East Oktibbeha led for much of the way in their home Class A, North State playoff game against Thomastown Tuesday, almost let the game slip away, then survived a frantic final 2 minutes for a 70-65 win.
"It was a tough game," said East Oktibbeha head coach Barnett Robinson. "Thomastown, they came to play. We got in a relaxed mode and it almost cost us. We turned it back up in the nick of time to finish the game."
Casey Neal led East Oktibbeha with a game-high 26 points, 14 of which came after halftime to help the Titans fend off a Thomastown team that had no quit.
East Oktibbeha (10-18) built themselves a comfortable lead, 18-10, after one quarter and took a 29-24 advantage into halftime.
By the midway point of the third quarter, the Bulldogs (12-14) were enjoying a run that gave them their first lead of the game at 32-31.
Keying Thomastown's resurgence was the duo of Marcus Henry and Tracey Wright. Henry's play in the low post resulted in a team-high total of 25 points for the Bulldogs.
"We fronted him front and back," said Robinson of his team's strategy to slow down Henry. "(Thomastown) didn't shoot the ball from outside very well so there wasn't any sense of contesting them outside because they weren't shooting. Our plan was to get a guy in front of him and a guy behind him and try to deny him the ball."
Henry was still able to get several open dunks and layups throughout the night, while also hauling in 16 rebounds to notch a double-double.
Wright also made his presence felt, scoring 19 points for Thomastown.
Just as it seemed Henry and Wright possessed the punch needed to upend the Titans, East Oktibbeha found an answer, largely in the form of Neal.
With his team down 44-35 late in the third quarter, Neal sparked a 10-0 Titans run that provided East Oktibbeha a 46-44 lead by the end of the frame.
"Our team is basically going to follow (Neal's) lead," said Robinson. "He did a real good job tonight getting us back in the game."
Neal scored seven of the 10 points in the Titans' late third quarter surge, capped by a three-pointer just before the period's final horn that got the fans in Crawford buzzing as East Oktibbeha took the lead for good.
"We started putting together big shots," said Neal. "I had to do what I had to do and just helped us get back in the game."
Throughout the night, Neal had plenty of help in pushing the Titans past the Bulldogs.
Chris Hunter finished with 16 points for the Titans while Davontae Lucious added 10.
"Neal's a great ballplayer and makes great shots, but (Hunter) and (Aldermar Carter) and (Lucious) hurt us," said Thomastown head coach Michael Huffman.
Huffman, a former coach of the West Oktibbeha Timberwolves, indicated Tuesday's loss was especially tough for his team as it put a wrap on both the season and the entire Thomastown basketball program due to an ongoing consolidation process.
"All of our kids will be going to Carthage (High School) next year, so they'll have a new name," said Huffman. "It was tough for us this last ballgame because this was probably the last basketball game for Thomastown."
Perhaps using the motivation to keep their season and program alive, the Bulldogs put together a fourth quarter run that nearly kept them alive to play another day.
With East Oktibbeha leading 65-56, the Bulldogs closed to within 65-63 late.
To fend off the charge, the Titans scored their final five points of the night on clutch free throws from Jamarius Hill.
As a team, East Oktibbeha was 14-of-26 from the line.
Thomastown was just 8-of-23 from the charity stripe.
"Free throws determine games," said Robinson. "Tonight, it determined the game."
With the win, the Titans will now travel to Brookhaven to face West Lincoln at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Robinson says he knows what his squad has to work on between now and then if the Titans are to extend their season with a win over the Bears.
"We've got to work on defense," said Robinson. "Defense is the key."