It’s 8:45 on a sun-splashed, spring-like Wednesday morning, a grand time to be doing anything outside. So, why are hundreds and hundreds of folks lined up outside Mississippi Coliseum, waiting to pay $12 to go inside?
Glad you asked. The state basketball tournament for public high schools is in the second week of its annual two-week run at what so many around Mississippi refer to as the Big House. The day’s first game matches two schools steeped in basketball tradition: Choctaw Central and New Site. This is a semifinal girls game with the winner advancing to Saturday’s Class 3A championship match.
And these are two groups of girls who grew up dribbling and shooting basketballs. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians places enormous emphasis on the sport. Girls begin playing in recreation leagues in the eight reservation communities at age 4, shooting at baskets no taller than their coaches.
Says Bill Smith, their coach, “By the time they get to high school, they’ve played two or three hundred basketball games. So they know how to play.”
Yes, they do.
New Site? It’s up in hill country, 11 miles southeast of Booneville on Highway 4. It’s up there among Baldwyn, Wheeler, Jumpertown and the like where there’s a basketball goal in nearly every driveway or yard.
You must rise early in New Site to get to a 9 a.m. basketball game in the capital city. “I got up at 4:30,” says south Prentiss County Constable Harry Allen. “It’s every bit of 218 miles. It took me three hours, 41 minutes to get here.”
But Allen wouldn’t have missed it and neither would most of the other 400 or so residents of the New Site community, who don’t have their own post office any more, but they do still have basketball.
New Site boys teams have won five state championships, including the Grand Slam in 1969 when tiny New Site, coached by the late and legendary Gerald Caveness, knocked off Jackson Wingfield in the finals. One of this New Site team’s key players is senior Mamie Caveness. She is Gerald’s granddaughter, far too young to have known her coaching grandfather, who died of a heart attack in 1990. But she knows basketball. All the New Site girls do. They were raised on it.
And so they know they face a stern task on this morning against a Choctaw Central team that has a 29-3 record and plays the sport as if the basketball is just another appendage that they control just as they do their arms and legs, fingers and toes. Although Choctaws are not by nature tall people, Choctaw Central has more than its share of basketball tradition, too. The Lady Warriors have won five state championships and played in the championship game another three times, including last year when Booneville, another Hill Country team, beat them. Choctaw Central boys have played in three state championships, won two.
But no Choctaw team has won a state title since 2005, and says, Lady Warrior point guard Darien Tubby, “That’s like forever for our school. It would be huge for us to bring the championship back home.”
This much is certain: It’s huge for the Mississippi High School Activities Association financially any time a Choctaw Central team makes it to the state tournament. The Choctaws follow them in droves and cheer them rabidly. Says Smith, the veteran coach in his fifth season at Choctaw Central, “Everybody likes to see us coming, especially the people who run the concession stands. Our fans will eat some popcorn.”
Perhaps, but most of the time they are cheering, and they have plenty to cheer this day.
The Lady Warriors press all over the floor, their goal being to speed the game and play at warp speed. The style accentuates their quickness, not to mention their ball-handling and shooting skills, which have become second nature.
Says Mamie Caveness, “They are really skilled, really good.”
Choctaw Central leads 11-8 after one quarter and stretches it to 30-18 at halftime. Darien Tubby leads the way with 13 points, six rebounds and four assists, including a couple of long, pin-point, baseball passes that lead to goals.
“I play softball, too,” she says, when asked about the long tosses.
Kaedre Denson, the tallest Choctaw player at 5-foot-11, adds 10 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocked shots. New Site has no answer for her size and strength inside. Every time New Site appears ready to make a run, a Choctaw Central player drains a high-arching 3-pointer that hits nothing but net. Smith clears his bench with just under two minutes to go and an 18-point lead. Choctaw Central goes on to win 55-40.
And so the Lady Warriors will play for that elusive sixth state championship Saturday at 1 p.m. Amanda Elzy, 29-1, which knocked off defending champion Booneville 64-63, will be the foe.
It will be a classic match of two athletic teams that love to get up and down the floor. Popcorn vendors, be forewarned. There will be a demand.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at email@example.com.
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