CLINTON – For the Lions of East Mississippi Community College, a fourth consecutive NJCAA Region 23 men’s basketball championship became a reality in virtually a blink of an eye. A dramatic six-point turnaround within the final 10 seconds of the game lifted EMCC to a 66-62 victory over Northwest Mississippi Community College during Saturday night’s regional finals played at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus.
Earning their fourth straight appearance in the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship, to be held March 18-23 in Hutchinson, Kan., head coach Mark White’s 20-7 EMCC Lions ironically become the first four-time NJCAA Region 23 men’s basketball champions since Northwest Mississippi accomplished the feat between 2003 and 2006.
Trailing 61-58 when Jarekious Bradley was fouled with 27 seconds left on the game clock, EMCC’s All-American candidate calmly sank both charity tosses to make it a one-point contest. Following a Northwest timeout, Charles Eaton hit one of two free throws to put the Rangers in front 62-60.
On EMCC’s next possession, Lion sophomore Trey Brown drilled his lone 3-pointer of the game to account for the 16th lead change of the title tilt. Amidst the excitement, freshman point guard Nick Giles then promptly picked off Northwest’s ensuing inbounds pass and was immediately fouled. The former Kemper County High School standout nailed both free throws with 8.3 ticks left to put the Lions on top 65-62.
After EMCC used its final timeout, Northwest’s D.J. Biggs was fouled before the Rangers could attempt a possible game-tying 3-pointer. Biggs misfired on both free throw tries with 6.2 seconds remaining, and Brown was sent to the line after collecting the second errant attempt. The Brandon native made it a two-possession game and sealed the four-point victory by connecting on the second free throw.
Along with producing 16 lead changes, the hard-fought championship contest stayed to within a six-point margin for the entire 40 minutes. That sole six-point spread was the result of EMCC’s fast 6-0 start to begin the game.
Following a 26-26 deadlock at the intermission, the Rangers seemed to take early control of the second half with five straight points right out of the break. However, Bradley, after missing six of his seven first-half attempts from the field, connected on consecutive 3-pointers to create yet another lead change.
The Rangers answered with a 10-4 run over the next five minutes to again go back up by five points (41-36) at the 11:05 mark on DeMarcus McVay’s three-point play. This time, it was Micah Walker’s turn to bomb in back-to-back triples, plus a two-point basket following a Northwest turnover, to give the Lions a 44-41 advantage midway through the half.
Just as it appeared as if the four-time MACJC North Division champions were perhaps poised to establish command of the contest coming down the stretch, the Rangers scored six straight points to turn a 58-55 deficit into a three-point lead (61-58) with 1:28 remaining. Following that momentum swing, a scoreless minute of play set up the climactic finish.
Bradley, the NJCAA’s sixth-leading scorer, led EMCC with team-high totals of 14 points and nine rebounds. The former Midland College (Texas) transfer by way of Memphis East High School was joined on the all-tournament team by Brown, who finished the championship contest with 10 points and seven boards.
Finishing the year with a 19-8 record, the Northwest Rangers were paced by all-tourney selections Domonique Harris and Eaton with 15 and 13 points, respectively.
Featuring an expanded 24-team field, which will include 16 district champions as automatic qualifiers as well as four Zone B qualifiers (from Districts 2, 7, 10 & 14) and four at-large selections, the single-elimination tournament bracket will be announced on Monday. In its 66th year of existence, the week-long tournament will be played at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.