| By Myra Bean
At the beginning of the basketball season, North Panola could not buy a win. They only won three games in the regular season.
The district tournament gives teams like North Panola, who were seeded No. 5 of seven teams going into the tournament, a second chance.
The Cougars seized the opportunity and Tuesday night knocked off the No. 1 team in the district, Byhalia, 70-58 and earned the right to play for the district championship tonight.
Byhalia entered the tournament 7-0 in the district while North Panola was 2-5 in the district.
The students and school district are excited about this opportunity for the Cougar teams, according to head coach Eric Rice who said the team finally gelled to pull together back-to-back wins in the district tournament.
"It took time for us to come together and play as a team," Rice said.
Monday night, North Panola defeated Marks Palmer 49-48.
"It was close all the way through," Rice said. In the third quarter, North Panola was down by nine points. In the fourth, the Cougars found themselves down by nine points two times and came back.
The team got the lead down to four points with less than a minute to play.
Assistant coach Xavier Johnson drew up a plan for Rodregus Black to shoot a three-pointer, according to Rice.
"He (Black) made it and we were down by one," Rice said.
North Panola fouled Palmer and sent them to the free throw line to shoot a one-and-one. Palmer missed and Cougar Bruce Wilbourn pulled down the rebound.
"He took the ball the length of the court and made the layup to take the lead," Rice said.
The Cougars fouled Palmer who missed the free throw again. The Cougars pulled down the rebound again and held the ball until the clock ran out.
"It was a real hard fought game on both sides," Rice said. "Our guys played real hard. The comeback effort proved the true character and the type of players we have."
North Panola has lost close games throughout the season.
"We finally learned how to finish," Rice said.
Finishing with a win proved not to be a fluke as the Cougars took on the top-seeded Byhalia Indians Tuesday night.
North Panola led the majority of the game, according to Rice. At the half, North Panola had a 31-27 lead. Going into the fourth quarter, North Panola only had a one point lead, 43-42.
The Cougars turned up the heat in the fourth quarter, scoring 27 points, and putting the game out of Byhalia’s reach.
Rice said he felt Byhalia overlooked the Cougars and that gave the Cougars an unexpected advantage in the district tournament. Byhalia has defeated the Cougars twice this season.
"Our guys were ready to play," Rice said. "We played the way I thought we could play all along."
An area Rice was pleased with was the free throw shooting.
"We have a whole lot of talented players," Rice said. "They kept working and never gave up.
"We felt up for the challenge," he continued. "I told them it is hard to beat a team three times in a season. We are a different ball team now."
Tonight, Independence or Holly Springs will have to shoulder the same burden Byhalia and Palmer did ? trying to defeat the Cougar team a third time. Holly Springs and North Panola only met once this season on January and the Cougars lost 78-42.
The first time the teams met January 2, Independence won 57-40. It was a little harder February 5, but Independence still won 62-59.
Independence and Holly Springs played Thursday night in the late game and the score was not available at press time.
Against Palmer, Wilbourn was the leading scorer with 14 points. Other Cougars scoring were Ramone Robinson, 12 points; Templeton Hardy, 6 points; Rodregus Black and Dexter Robinson, 5 points each; Michael Johnson and Jarvis Taylor, 2 points each; Nick Black and Aldrick Russell, 1 point each.
Against Byhalia, Rodregus Black was the leading scorer with 23 points. Cornelius Blackmon of Byhalia scored 21 points for his team.
Other Cougar scorers include Ramone Robison, 16 points; Wilbourn, 11 points; Hardy, 8 points; Dexter Robinson, 7 points; Rico Young, 3 points; and Nick Black, 2 points.
Tipoff for tonight’s game is 8:30 p.m.
The Lady Cougars lost to Byhalia Monday night, 69-66, and ended their season.