FULTON – Keyed by the hot-shooting hand of Avery Woodson, the Lions of East Mississippi Community College knocked off 19th-ranked Jones County Junior College, 75-69, during Wednesday's semifinals of the MACJC State Basketball Tournament being played at the Davis Event Center on the Itawamba Community College campus.
The second seed out of the MACJC's North Division, the 19-5 EMCC Lions will face top-seeded and host Itawamba for the state title. Tip-off for Thursday's state championship men's game is set for 8 p.m., following the women's title tilt pitting Jones County against Southwest Mississippi, and will be video-streamed live on www.EMCCAthletics.com/live.
Thursday's tournament nightcap will feature a rubber match between the two MACJC North Division men's rivals. The EMCC Lions have won 10 of their last 11 decisions since dropping a heartbreaking 107-103 double-overtime decision to Itawamba last month in Fulton, including a decisive 85-51 home victory over the Indians during the rematch two weeks ago in Scooba.
Reigning four-time NJCAA Region 23 men's champions, East Mississippi returns to the state title game for the first time since 2010 when head coach Mark White's Lions dropped a 61-58 decision to Pearl River in the EMCC-hosted finals held on the Scooba campus. EMCC also claimed a pair of runner-up state tournament finishes back in 1952 and 1954.
With this year's EMCC squad on the brink of possibly making school history with the program's first modern-day men's basketball state title on the line, it took Woodson's long-range heroics in the semis to even give the Lions that opportunity. Battling through a recent shooting slump that saw him struggle with 2-of-14 shooting (0-of-9 treys) during Monday's 73-68 quarterfinal-round victory over Pearl River, Woodson hit four of his first five three-point attempts en route to a 20-point, first-half showing against MACJC South Division Champion Jones County.
After EMCC got down by nine points (28-19) midway through the opening half, Woodson's six first-half treys helped keep the Lions in the contest. Aided by two of Woodson's 3-pointers during the stretch, the Lions rallied to score 10 unanswered points to temporarily grab the lead. The top-seeded Bobcats then responded by finishing the half on an 8-1 run to hold a 38-35 halftime advantage.
The Lions continued to battle from behind throughout much of the early portion of the second half. Still trailing by six points (55-49) midway through the closing period, EMCC became energized by consecutive highlight-reel dunks from Devonta Pollard and Jacolby Mobley. Pollard's one-hand jam out of a triple-team defense in the lane was followed by Mobley's driving left-hand slam to ignite the Lions down the stretch. A minute later, Woodson's eighth and ninth 3-pointers of the game briefly put EMCC back on top.
Mobley later capped a game-deciding 8-0 run with a pull-up 3-pointer with two minutes remaining that made it a two-possession contest (70-64) in favor of the Lions. Jones County managed to cut the deficit in half (72-69) on a three-point play by Bryce Jones, but Pollard and fellow Kemper County High School product Nick Giles combined for three made free throws in the waning seconds to seal the six-point triumph.
Woodson, who entered the game having connected on only 4-of-35 field goals, including just 2-of-26 from beyond the arc, over his last three outings, finished with a game-high 31 points to just miss hitting his season-high of 32 points scored in December at Wallace State-Hanceville. The University of Memphis signee was 10-of-19 overall from the field against JCJC, including 9-of-17 from three-point range.
Mobley, a Tennessee-Chattanooga signee from Starkville, followed with 19 points, while Pollard added a dozen points and a team-high six rebounds along with two blocks and a pair of steals.
Falling to 20-5 overall on the season, the JCJC Bobcats were led by Leroy Fludd's 30 points. Jones, a fellow Brooklyn, N.Y., native, was the only other Bobcat player in double figures with 16 points.