Big House Bound! Panthers enter state tournament with perfect 30-0 record

By JOFFRE WASHINGTON,

Thirty teams have tried. Thirty teams have failed.

Last week, the Yazoo County Panthers added another “W” to the win column after soundly defeating the Nettleton Tigers by a score of 86-55 in the Class 3A quarterfinals. A 31-point victory is impressive enough on its own, but what was more special for the Panthers and head coach Rahim Lockhart was the fact that it was the first time this post season the Panthers, now 30-0, were playing away from the friendly confines of their home court.

“Winning on the road in the playoffs is always tough,” said Lockhart. “I was wondering how I was going to get that message across to them, but I didn’t have to. It’s amazing how much information the kids have now. The guys were telling me it was going to be hard to win on the road and that it was going to be a dog fight. They had read the articles and they already understood the importance of playing well on the road. Fortunately for us, we shot the ball well against Nettleton. No matter what level you’re on, if you shoot the ball like we did on the road, you have a great chance to win.”

Yazoo County shot the ball well indeed, especially from behind the three-point arc. The Panthers connected on 11 three-pointers in the game, six in the first half and five in the second half.

Said Lockhart: “I believe the guys used the fact that we were on the road as motivation. They didn’t understand why we had to travel if we were undefeated. Rather than try to explain to them the (MHSAA) format, I just played it like we were the underdogs. So the kids took the approach that they still had something to prove.”

Yazoo County came storming out of the gate and quieted the home-standing Tiger fans with a 23-6 first quarter. Kejuan Frierson and Hunter Barron connected on a pair of three-pointers to lead the opening quarter run. Martarious Burrell began to heat up in the second quarter, connecting on three long range bombs from downtown to fuel a 19-point quarter and give the Panthers a 42-20 lead at the half.

The route continued in the third quarter as the Panthers still had the hot-hand from deep. Burrell, Barron and Frierson each added another three-pointer in the frame to push the Yazoo County lead to 67-39 heading into the fourth quarter. The Panthers outscored the Tigers 19-16 down the stretch to put away a game that was never in doubt.

Burrell connected on four shots from behind the three-point arc and led all scorers with a game-high 20 points. Emon Washington added 16, Barron had 13 (three 3’s), Frierson, 11 (three 3s), and LaKevion Dixon rounded out the double figure scorers with 10.

Other YCHS scorers were John Lewis with seven, Jamario Bassett with six, and Jayden Moorehead with three.

Shawn Pounds and Graham Gardner led the way for Nettleton with 18 and 16 points respectively.

Yazoo County, the heavy favorites to win the gold ball, now find themselves just two wins away from completing a perfect season and winning the second State Championship in school history. The Panthers square off against the Velma Jackson Falcons in the semifinals Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. at the Mississippi Coliseum. Lockhart knows that overcoming the Falcons, the recent rulers of the 3A roost, will be a tough task for his young Panthers.

“When you play Velma Jackson, you’re not just playing against the guys on the floor, you’re playing against a history and a legacy that was written quite recently,” said Lockhart. “The guys on this (current) team may not have been there, but they are the bi-product of the championship program that was built by coach (Anthony) Carlyle and players like Quinn and Nick Weatherspoon, Moses Greenwood and Kendarious Smith. The current players want to continue that legacy and they are coming in with the belief that they can win. Dealing with their confidence is going to be our biggest challenge.”

Added Lockhart: “I like the way we’re playing right now. The guys have picked up so much wisdom and they have begun to develop a true understanding of the game. They are reading and reacting and making plays. They’re playing basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played.”

With a win over Velma Jackson the Panthers would play in the championship game against the winner of the St. Andrews-Holly Springs matchup.

“That’s going to be an interesting game,” said Lockhart of the tilt between St. Andrews and Holly Springs. “Both of those teams have great programs and either one will be a test, but we’ve got to take care of business first. We’re not taking anything for granted. These boys have never had a winning season before so they’re just enjoying each and every game.”