Jonathan Ashley (foreground) coached Ingomar to a 64-56 victory over Shaw in the State Class 1A semifinals Monday. Now, Ingomar will play Baldwyn Thursday for the State Championship at The Pavilion at Ole Miss.

This is the first week of March, so you know basketballs are bouncing and sneakers are squeaking in Mississippi Coliseum right off of I-55 in downtown Jackson. Yes, and yellow school buses are bringing young’uns from all over the state to the capital city for the state high school tournament.

All that was true Monday when the first eight semifinal games were played. There will be eight more games Tuesday and eight more Wednesday, all semifinal games. But that is when a long, long Magnolia State basketball tradition will end.

Rick Cleveland

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Mississippi’s state championship games – 12 in all – will move to The Pavilion at Ole Miss, marking the first time in more than half a century the state championship games will not be played in Mississippi Coliseum.

Asked about the move, Don Hinton, executive director of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) responded: “We just believe that championship teams deserve to play in championship facilities. We want our young people to play in the best arenas the state has to offer.”

It has been a long, long time since Mississippi Coliseum was anything close to the best arena in the state. The Big House, as it is often called, was state of the art back in, say, 1962 when it was completed. For years now, it has been in a sad state, period.

Mississippi Coliseum, compared to The Pavilion at Ole Miss, is like a stripped down ’62 Ford Fairlane compared to a 2020 Rolls Royce with all the bells and whistles.

Last week, the state tournament regional finals were played at four sites around the state: at Mississippi Valley State and Itawamba Community College in the north, and at Pearl River Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum in the South.

Gone, apparently forever, are the days when all those games and the semifinals and championship rounds, as well, were played in Mississippi Coliseum.

Said Hinton, “We simply want to do what is best for our young people.”

A similar move was made in football several years ago when championship games were moved away from antiquated Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in 2014 and have since been played at more modern facilities at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss.

Hinton acknowledges hearing protests about the football championships being moved at the outset, but says everyone – players, coaches, administrators and fans – have more than warmed to the idea.

Ingomar”s Hunter Bynum grabs a rebound, as Shaw’s Jelani Jackson watches.

Hinton, again: “I think our basketball people have seen what the move has meant to football. We haven’t heard any negative feedback other than from a few Jackson people who just say they liked having it here.”

My take (and this comes from a sports traditionalist of the first order): The move to the college campuses has been splendid for MHSAA football. Expect the same for basketball.

If all goes according to plan, the 2021 state basketball championship finals will be played at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. That’s not certain because both the Mississippi State men and women would have to be scheduled to play on the road the last weekend of the regular season. The Southeastern Conference should be able to make that happen.

The plan would then be to alternate the championship games between Ole Miss and State, with Southern Miss joining the rotation if and when planned improvements are made to Reed Green Coliseum.

Meanwhile, this will take some getting used to for folks like Jonathan Ashley, coach at tradition rich Ingomar, which won its semifinal game 64-56 over Shaw Monday afternoon and will play Baldwyn Thursday in Oxford for the state crown. Ashley has been attending championship games in Mississippi Coliseum since before he can remember. He was an infant wearing diapers when Ingomar, coached by his legendary father Norris Ashley, won the state title in 1978.

“This place has meant an awful lot to Ingomar (15 state championships combined boys and girls),” Ashley said. “Heck, it’s meant a lot to my family. Times change, sometimes for the good, sometimes not so good. I know change has been great for Mississippi football. I’ll let you know Thursday about basketball.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.