JACKSON – One year ago, Starkville defeated Meridian to claim the Class 6A state title.
Meridian still must win another game before hoisting a gold ball of its own, but on Wednesday, the Wildcats ensured the Yellowjackets won't repeat.
Meridian standout and Mississippi State signee Rodney Hood scored a game-high 27 points at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson to lead the Wildcats to a 72-43 win over Starkville in the Class 6A semifinals.
"We knew what was at stake," said Hood. "We knew who (Starkville) was. They beat us last year and we remember everything, so we came back this year with a vengeance."
Matthew Hurn poured in 15 points and Nick Waters added 11 to aid Meridian's cause as the Wildcats improved to 28-2 overall and clinched a berth in the Class 6A championship game on Saturday against Vicksburg.
Starkville's season concluded with a final overall record of 19-9.
Jacolby Mobley was the lone Jacket to score in double figures Wednesday, totaling 16 points against a tenacious Meridian defense.
"They doubled me the whole game," said Mobley. "(We) had opportunities to score points. (We) were getting to the basket, but they just weren't falling tonight."
Other than Mobley, Steven Brand (eight points) was the only other Jacket to score more than six points.
Though they never led in the game, the Jackets stayed within shouting distance of the Wildcats until midway through the third quarter.
Trailing 45-35 with a little over 3 minutes left in that frame, Starkville fell victim to a 14-0 Meridian run that extended into the opening seconds of the fourth quarter.
Hood tallied eight of the Wildcats' points in that stretch, all but cementing Meridian's win.
"I told everybody to keep their heads in the game but everybody just kind of got out of it," said Mobley. "I guess they just knew it was over with by that time."
Beginning with Meridian's torrid stretch, Starkville scored just eight points the rest of the way.
It wasn't much of a change of pace for a Jackets offense that wasn't able to find a consistent rhythm all night.
"We were up and down," said SHS head coach Greg Carter. "We'd make a couple of baskets, but we'd miss a couple of baskets, baskets that you have to make against good teams in order to win. We just couldn't get over the hump."
Meridian jumped on top of Starkville early in the contest, taking a 15-10 lead after the first quarter and stretching it out to 34-22 by halftime.
Carter said he knew his club was in trouble when they weren't able to build any first-half momentum.
"I knew coming in, we needed to play well early and we didn't," said Carter. "I thought we started the game a little bit tight, a little bit nervous, and it hurt us."
The absence of junior center Gavin Ware, missing his fifth straight game with strained ligaments and cartilage under his kneecap, could have been a factor in fostering Starkville's early anxiety.
Whether or not that was the case, Ware said it was difficult having to sit on the sidelines at the Big House while his teammates struggled.
"I feel it was a letdown for me not to be able to get better quick," said Ware. "It hurt watching from the bench, but I think we could have done better."
Ironically, Hood said he and his teammates were surprised when they got to Jackson and didn't have to worry about Starkville's big man down low.
"We didn't know (Ware) was hurt at all," said Hood. "We practiced for him, but luckily, he didn't play so we adjusted and did what we're supposed to do."
As such, Meridian now gets the chance at the crown Hood feels Starkville took from them last year.
Unlike Hood, Meridian head coach Randy Bolden said Wednesday's win wasn't about retribution, it was simply about advancing to Saturday.
"Starkville just happened to be the team in the semifinals and who we had to play," said Bolden. "Our eyes are on the prize, and that's Saturday. We're taking one opponent at a time, and it just happened to be Starkville tonight."
With that, it's back to the drawing board for Carter and the Jackets.
Luckily, Carter believes the team he'll guide next year has plenty in common with the group that eliminated SHS Wednesday.
"(Meridian) has been together a long time and they've gotten better and better year by year," said Carter. "My hat is off to them. Hopefully, we can duplicate what they've done because I've got a group here that the majority of them will be returning. We'll get to work real soon working for next year."