Bay holds off SSC 39-36 for first-ever South State basketball title; both Tigers & Rocks head to Final 4

The Bay High Tigers (32-3) held off a pesky group of St. Stanislaus Rock-a-chaws for their first-ever Class 4A South State championship 39-36 on Saturday, February 20th at the Wilmer Seymour Gymnasium/Mike Necaise Court.

The championship matchup was everything that it was billed to be and more. It had a little bit of everything from transition basketball to patient half court sets. It was mentor versus pupil on the sidelines and young versus old on the court. This was the fourth time that the two schools have met this year on the hardwood. The Rocks won the regular season series 38-29 on December 8th and 57-50 on January 15th. The two schools met again on February 15th in the Division 8-4A finals which the Tigers won 46-35.

SSC head coach Jay Ladner has molded the Rock-a-chaw program into a contender year in and year out while Thompson has built the Tigers into a contender in his four years at the helm. Ladner was Thompson’s mentor at SSC when he was a player and on the bus as the starting point guard for the Rocks’ first state tournament trip to Jackson in 1996. Now, Thompson leads Bay High to its first-ever state basketball tournament berth under the current playoff format as Ladner is making his eighth trip to the capitol city. Bay High has made the state tournament only once in 1958 under a previous post-season format.

Thompson commented, “I am extremely proud of this group of young men. We played five crucial games in six days. This team has worked their tails off for this program year round since I came to Bay High four years ago. We instituted a policy of no excuses for anything. They bought into and it became something important to them. We wanted to eliminate any excuse for not achieving or not being successful. It has made a difference in their personal lives which has, consequently, made a difference in our program. They have grown up outside of the basketball court and that has affected their play inside the court.”

In the championship game, the Tigers took off fast out of the gate hitting four thee pointers in the first half. What is even more impressive is the fact that the Tigers were 4-for-4 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line. Brennan Dunklin nailed the first trey with 6:50 to play to give Bay High a 3-0 lead. Nick Vazquez tallied a bucket for SSC on a penetration drive to cut the lead to 3-2 with 6:16 left.

Devon Narcisse and Daron Bell swished three-pointers on consecutive trips down the court to put the Tigers up 9-2 with 5:26 left. Johnny Zuppardo stopped the bleeding for SSC with a bucket in the paint at the 3:43 mark to make the score 9-4. Dunklin hit his second three-pointer of the period to put Bay High up 12-4. Anthony Boswell ripped the net for three while Zuppardo converted inside again to cut the score to 12-9 with 1:13 left in the period. Dunklin sank two charity shots before Vazquez hit a leaner with two seconds left in the first to make the score 14-11.

Ladner stated, “The first four minutes of the game when they got off to a fast start with the three-point shot was big. We dug ourselves a hole. But, we did a good job coming back and leveling the ship.”

In the second period, it was a game of basket-for-basket for each team. Bell started the period off with a trey for Bay High followed by a bucket by Tyler Cambre and two charity shots by Zuppardo for SSC that brought the score to 17-15 with 5:27 left in the half. Bay High went up 22-15 on a bucket by Dimitry Johnson and four points from Bell with 3:12 remaining. Boswell ripped a three for SSC and drove for two more to make the halftime score 22-20.

Each team scored six points in the third period.

Vazquez sank two free throws with 7:06 left in the game to tie the score but Narcisse and Bell combined for four points that pushed the Tigers’ lead to 32-28 with 5:28 left to play.

However, Jonathan Romain’s three-pointer and a bucket by Zuppardo gave the Rocks their first lead of the game 33-32 with 3:42 remaining.

Zuppardo then sank a charity shot and Vazquez got a buck off penetration that pushed the Rock lead to 36-32 with 2:43 left to play. Bell, as he has done so many times before, sank a three-pointer that broke the Tigers’ stalemate on the scoreboard and cut the lead to 36-35 with 2:10 remaining. Dunklin gave the lead back to the Tigers at 37-36 with two free throws with 59 seconds left. The Rocks appeared to be going to the line with about 12 seconds remaining but were whistled for an offensive charge which gave the ball back to the Tigers. Bell sank two free throws with seven seconds left to seal the win and the title for the Tigers.

Bell led all scorers with 16 points followed by Dunklin with 10 points. Boswell led the Rocks with 13 points followed by Vazquez with nine points.

Thompson added, “The team had a chance to lay down in the second half but they didn’t. They pushed forward and finished the game.”

Ladner recalled, “Late in the game, we had an opportunity to take charge and we didn’t. Daron Bell is the best player in the division and he hit a big shot. It was a well played game and, hopefully, it will be both teams battling again for the state championship. There was really no loser in this game as both teams are headed to Jackson.”

To advance to the finals, the Tigers defeated Northeast Lauderdale 55-48 behind Bell’s 27 points and 16 rebounds while Johnson added 10 points. The Rocks stopped Mendenhall 45-35 as Vazquez scored 14 and Zuppardo had 13. In local girls’ action, the Pass Christian Lady Pirates fell in the south state quarter finals 57-41 to North Pike and the Bay High Lady Tigers stumbled against Lawrence County 71-56.

With Bay High earning the #1-seed from the South, the Tigers will play the North #2-seed Center Hill at 8pm on Monday, March 1st at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. The South #2-seed Rocks will play the North #1-seed Pontotoc on March 1st at 2:30pm.

If both teams win they will meet each for the Class 4A state championship game on Friday, March 5th at 8:30pm at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.

There are so many storylines and tangents that can be found intertwined in this story of two teams and two schools. Both teams are incredibly similar in their structural defenses and offenses. One team has a coach that was the mentor for the other team’s leader. One coach is quickly creeping up on 500 career wins while Saturday’s win was the younger one’s 80th victory in just four seasons.

While there must be a winner on the court, and make no mistake about it that winner was the Bay High Tigers, public address announcer Mike Lee stated before the game that both teams helped the Bay-Waveland area become the real winner in Class 4A South. Two teams separated by 1.2 miles are representing the south in the Class 4A state basketball tournament. That is a huge statement for this community. And, it also breathes new life into a natural and healthy rivalry that had gone cold for so long.

BY: Joseph W. Gex II

The Sea Coast Echo

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