By Paul Keane
Wayne County News
The staple of Ron Norman coached teams — relentless pressure defense until a game is under control — proved to be the difference here Tuesday night as Wayne County High School topped Pearl River Central, 60-42 in the first round of the 5A South State Championship.
The victory improved the No. 1 team in the state to 29-1 overall and moves the War Eagles into Friday night's semifinals of the South State Tournament. WCHS will face either Pascagoula or Brookhaven in the semifinals, with the winner advancing to Saturday's championship round and earning a berth in the March 5 5A State Semifinals.
"We're one win away from going back to Jackson," said WCHS Head Coach Ron Norman. "When I came here, I said I wanted to hang banners in our gym. One more win and we'll get to hang our third banner in three years in our gym."
Norman said the pressure early proved to be the difference, allowing his team to slow down the pace in the second half.
"That first quarter was the key," he said. "Our pressure got to them, and that allowed us to come out like we did and make some shots. It's not a pretty way to win, but the goal is to get a big enough lead to where we can spread things out and move the ball around. We've got eight guards on the team and we just want to use our pressure to get a lead and then have the other team chase our guards around the rest of the night.
"Our defense was consistent again tonight, and Don Lewis got us going like a senior should do."
Lewis scored 10 points in the first quarter as the War Eagles forced eight PRC turnovers to jump out to a big lead.
Derrick Thompkins got the scoring started with a three-pointer, followed by buckets from Rayquan Gray and Lewis. After Pearl River's Ashton Woodson hit 2-of-3 free throws to trim the deficit to 7-2, Lanney McDonald and Thompkins converted back-to-back three-point plays to make it 13-2. Consecutive treys from Tevin Smith and Lewis, combined with a bucket from Raymel Everett, made it 23-8, then Lewis hit another three-pointer and a jumper to make it 28-14 by the end of the quarter.
Things slowed down in the second period, allowing Woodson to heat up a little bit with seven points. McDonald drained a pair of free throws to make it 30-16, then Woodson hit a three-pointer and Walker Roberts scored on a short jumper to cut the margin down to 30-21 with 5:50 left in the first half.
Lewis would hit a jumper and a three-pointer sandwiched around a Woodson three-point play, and that made it a 35-24 ballgame with 4:32 left. Holding onto a 35-25 advantage, McDonald hit a jumper then Jarvis Chambers hit a free throw and a three-pointer to give the home team a 41-28 advantage at halftime.
The War Eagles slowed things down even more in the third quarter, having a steady rotation of guards run a motion offense that milked time off the clock. Thompkins hit a jumper with 7:49 left to make it 43-28, then the War Eagles did not score again until the 4:07 mark when Smith hit a free throws. Smith would add a jumper with 3:14 left to make it 46-31 after Woodson had converted a three-point play. Dennan Seal would also convert a three-point play to make it 46-34 before Chambers drained a jumper. Roberts hit a short turnaround with 1:20 left to make it 48-36.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, that would be the last points for them for a stretch of 7:24 as the War Eagles' defense clamped down. PRC did not score again until Christian Travis hit a jumper with 1:56 remaining in the contest.
During the scoring drought for the visiting team, the War Eagles mixed in just enough scoring with a methodical offense that milked plenty of time off the clock. Thompkins hit a three-pointer with 4:51 left, then McDonald drained a pair of free throws to go along with free throws from Lewis and Gray. That made it 55-36 with 3:08 remaining in the ballgame.
Smith would hit on 3-of-8 free throws down the stretch before Lewis drained a pair of free throws with 31 seconds left to set the final margin.
For the night, Lewis led the War Eagles with 18 points while Smith poured in nine, Thompkins added eight, Gray and Chambers scored six each and Everett had two. For the Blue Devils, Woodson led the offense with 18 points.
The Blue Devils out-rebounded the War Eagles by a 27-23 margin but WCHS forced 28 PRC turnovers while committing only eight the entire evening.