SENATOBIA – Conner McKay helped the Northeast Mississippi Community College men’s basketball team survive a massive scoring drought late in its postseason opener.
McKay made four big free throws in the final minute that allowed the Tigers to secure its 79-73 victory over Copiah-Lincoln Community College on Monday, February 26 in the first round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) State Tournament at Howard Coliseum.
Northeast (18-6) advances to the state semifinals for the third time in the last four seasons. The Tigers match up with host Northwest Mississippi Community College, who eliminated Southwest Mississippi Community College in its quarterfinal contest, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 28 in Senatobia.
JaQuante Bell’s layup coupled with a Bryce Smith free throw moments later gave Northeast a seemingly comfortable 73-61 advantage over the Wolves (19-5) with 5:37 remaining in the game.
However, the Tigers went ice cold from that instance and actually did not score a field goal in the final six minutes, 10 seconds. Northeast went five-plus minutes overall without scoring and saw its lead evaporate to just 73-71 with only 1:14 left in the contest.
The Tigers were still able to manipulate the clock to their benefit and eventually forced Co-Lin into fouling with less than 30 seconds to go. The duo of Felix Hayes and McKay were perfect in six attempts in that final sequence to halt any comeback hopes for Co-Lin.
McKay’s late makes from the charity stripe pushed him into double figures for the third consecutive game and the 15th time during his sophomore campaign. He tied for a team-high 13 points alongside Smith.
“I’m glad we could all make some shots tonight and get the win,” said McKay. “It was good to close one out. I thought we started out real well offensively and defensively. That gave us some good momentum throughout the game.”
Smith added six rebounds to go along with his team-high point total. Antares Gwyn was the only other Northeast student-athlete to reach double-digits with 12 points and eight boards as well.
“I just give all the glory to God and thank Him for letting me play the game I love,” said Gwyn. “It meant a lot to us. We just came out and played hard. We didn’t want this to be our last game here.”
A balanced scoring lineup for the Tigers saw four more players come within one basket of recording double figures, including Bell and Hayes with nine points apiece. Northeast shot 39.7 percent overall and held a plus-nine margin in rebounding.
“It was really a great win,” Tigers head coach Cord Wright said. “I thought our guys from start to finish were locked in. We anticipated (Co-Lin) being a good team, but even when we had them down they kept fighting. We were able to respond by not turning the ball over.”
Northeast led from start to finish against the Wolves, who like the Tigers are receiving votes in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings, after McKay drained a three-pointer on the first possession of the matchup.
Gwyn’s coast-to-coast lay in following a steal at the 15:49 mark capped a spurt of 10 consecutive points to begin the contest for Northeast. The Tigers increased their advantage to 15-2 following a Bryant Givens three-pointer and Bell’s initial basket of the game.
Northeast utilized a 9-0 run in the middle of the first half to expand its lead to 26-12. Darius Williams nailed a clutch long distance shot and Givens had two big jumpers on the front end of that spurt.
Co-Lin cut its deficit to 35-30 with 2:34 remaining in the opening half. But Northeast pushed the Wolves’ shortfall to 39-30 at halftime following two free throws from Thomas Cain and a bucket by Bell.
The Tigers took their biggest lead of the entire contest at 52-34 less than three minutes into the second half with an 8-0 surge that featured six points, including three free tosses, from McKay plus a Gwyn jumper.
“I thought we established ourselves early and weathered some storms,” said Wright. “The thing I like about this team is that we are learning how to win different ways. That’s good because other teams are now going to have more problems.”
This was the first meeting on the hardwood between Northeast and Co-Lin since the 2009-10 campaign. The Tigers had 32 bench points plus 26 points in the paint and 16 total assists on the evening.
Northeast meets the MACJC North Division champion Rangers (21-2) for the third time this year. Northwest was victorious in both of the previous matchups, including a heartbreaking overtime loss for the Tigers inside legendary Bonner Arnold Coliseum.