But over the final six minutes of their game at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center, the Hustlin’ Tigers went cold — they missed five straight field-goal attempts and a pair of free throws during one stretch — which allowed the Hawks to pull away for a 59-51 win in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class AA state tournament.
“I think nerves set in and we had some uncharacteristic things happen,” Howard coach James Talley said. “We stopped running our offense the way we had been and started trying to win the game with one shot once we got down. We didn’t stand up and weather the storm like we should have.”
Making its second state tournament appearance in the past three seasons, Howard jumped out to a 7-0 lead and maintained that advantage throughout the opening quarter. The Hawks (25-1) closed the gap, though, and by the start of the second quarter, Howard’s lead was down to two.
Southside, which will carry a 20-game winning streak into its semifinal against Kingston (28-5), pulled ahead for the first time one minute into the second quarter on back-to-back layups by Jaylan Cole.
“We knew who they were coming in,” Talley said. “We heard all the chatter, even from some of the people that are close to us, as far as what we couldn’t do with that team. We were excited about it. We wanted to come in and show what we’re made of.
“When we watched film, they looked like us. That team just continued to attack, attack, attack. They do play a similar style, but they play a lot tougher and with more aggression.”
Howard (19-6) answered the Hawks’ run late in the first half with an 11-4 scoring spurt of its own to regain the lead and go into halftime ahead 29-27.
The Hustlin’ Tigers were ahead 45-42 entering the final quarter, and they stretched their lead to six on a 3-pointer by Jadon Jenkins with 6:17 remaining. But the Hawks countered with a three-point play and a layup by Brandon Maclin in a one-minute span to pull within one, which started the decisive scoring run.
“We were winning, but then it seemed like we kind of got the big head and stopped rebounding and doing the things we needed to,” said Howard senior post Kerrick Thorne, who finished with a team-high 14 points and seven rebounds.
Jenkins finished with 11 points and Xavier Fisher added 10, including two 3-pointers on four attempts. Fisher’s 3 with 3:43 remaining brought Howard within two, but that was the team’s final basket. His try for a tying 3 with less than 20 seconds remaining fell short, and Southside scored five points in the final 10 seconds to pull away.
“I can tell you this: Jackson Southside knows we’re a legit team,” Talley said. “We expected to win. When we watched film, they looked like us. They turned it into an ugly game with their bigs in the post, and that’s something we weren’t ready for.”
Michael Ward scored 20 points to lead the Hawks, and Maclin added 16 with 11 rebounds.
“Our kids didn’t quit,” Hawks coach Damonn Fuller said. “They believed they were going to find a way to win down the stretch. A lot of times people think just because we’re the No. 1 team in the state that everything is going to go smooth, but these are still 15-to-16-year-old kids, so it doesn’t always happen like that.”
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.