Eric Caldwell didn’t even have to look.
Less than a minute into the second quarter of Friday’s game at Columbus High School, the New Hope High School senior slammed through the right side of the Falcons defense, giving a peekless pass to a waiting Carson Latham on the inside, resulting in in a simple layup.
The basket increased the Trojans’ lead to 10 points – it was 12 to the half – and 16 minutes later New Hope (11-2) had a 60-39 win over Columbus in Caldwell’s first game, making old home days since the Columbus move High after last season.
“It felt kind of weird, but I got the butterflies out,” said the senior when he first stepped into the Falcons gym as a guest player.
All the nerves that Caldwell had early on didn’t show up when he led the Trojans with five points in the first quarter. The senior finished the race with 10 points, which was part of another fair performance by New Hope: Jorden Edwards led with 15 points, Caleb Parr with 11 points and LJ Hackman with Caldwell’s total.
“When you have multiple guns that can attack and share basketball and the people shooting it, it’s always nice,” said Drew McBrayer, New Hope coach. “For us to be what we need to get into the playoffs, we have to have this even score.”
The Trojans are certainly in shape less than a month before the start of the MHSAA Class 5A, Region 2 district tournament and postseason. Columbus, meanwhile, struggled with a 2-0 start in the district game, but coach Phillip Morris was optimistic about a turnaround.
“We have a lot of time until this district tournament,” he said. “We just have to find our way.”
The Hawks were way off Friday, in part due to a roster that stays in flux. Malik Moore is now in COVID-19 quarantine, Ethan Conner has just returned, and Star Blake Burnett is currently not on the team.
Even so, Columbus paused for nearly half an hour performing his two master keys: limiting sales and preventing a well-shooting New Hope team from scoring 3-point points.
But the Trojans couldn’t be kept in check forever. A few minutes after the Falcons, led by Junior Tre Dismuke with six points, made a small run to finish the game between 12 and 12 in the second quarter, McBrayer gave his players an instruction.
“Extend the line and come in (at half time),” recalled Caldwell. “We’ll get them out before they can get their rhythm going.”
Forcing the Hawks into zone defense – man-to-man is Morris’ preferred scheme – New Hope scored seven direct points to bring the score to 24-16 and added six more after a Columbus bucket. Half of them were 30-18, Trojans. Columbus never threatened again.
“That killed it,” said Morris. “It hurt us.”
McBrayer rated his team’s game all round, especially in areas that often go unnoticed on a high-flying, high-scoring Trojan team.
“I thought we did a pretty good job defensively,” he said. “I thought we knocked basketball back pretty well too.”
New Hope won for the sixth straight time since losing to Starkville, who scored a whopping 110 points in South Panola on Friday. McBrayer said the Trojans had only improved sharing the basketball with limited time on the ground and they were excited to see what was to come.
“I think the more we play together, the more we’ll gel and get better. So that’s what I’m looking forward to,” said Caldwell.
Columbus girl 39, New Hope 25
Myra King is used to her Columbus teammates going crazy when someone takes a big shot in practice.
On Friday evening against New Hope, the Junior Guard had the opportunity to relive this feeling in a much more important situation.
Twice in a row in the third quarter, King buried critical 3-pointers from the left corner – right in front of her bank. Both times the reserves of the hawks burst into jubilation right behind her.
“In the game, when everyone is out there, you feel great,” she said.
Combine that reception with the role King played in helping the Hawks break away from the Trojans on their way to a 39:25 win that avenged Columbus’ loss to New Hope in last year’s district championship.
“We dropped this one last year, but I’m glad we got it back,” said Senior Guard DJ Jackson.
The Falcons came into play on Friday more than motivated to improve to 2-0 in the district game and to make up for the 35:34 defeat against the Trojans in Grenada last year. That loss cost Columbus a goodbye in the MHSAA class in the first round 5A playoffs. While the Falcons won their very first state championship, the competition stayed on their mind.
“They remember they beat us last year and we wanted to make sure they didn’t beat us this year,” said Columbus coach Yvonne Hairston.
Trying to do just that, the hawks got a little too bogged down in their heads, which led to excess sales early on. Their lead was only five points after the first quarter and nine in the half.
“I think we were a little concerned,” said Hairston. “We wanted to play really well. We wanted to play really hard.”
But Columbus quickly made amends. Early in the third quarter, Jackson made a 3, MaKhya Weatherspoon pocketed a midfield shot, Charity Yeates shared two free throws, and King hit their first 3 of the night.
“We worked on that shot and she was able to capture a few of them out there,” said Hairston of King, who finished with eight points. “She was in the gym and worked extra hard to make sure she was ready and to help the DJ kick the ball.”
With Kings Triple, the score was up from 19-10 to 28-10 in less than three minutes. New Hope only came closer in the last few minutes.
“The difference tonight was that they did runs and we never really did a run,” said New Hope coach Nick Christy. “We just threw away and they ran out there and got five in a row.”
Christy said the Trojans’ defense had improved from a 40:34 loss to Grenada on Tuesday, but admitted that his team still had a lot of work to do on offense to compete in games like the low-scoring competition on Friday .
“Of course we want to shoot the ball a lot better than we did tonight,” said Christy. “It makes you even tougher on defense when it feels like there’s a cap on the rim because you have to be almost perfect on defense when you can’t use it.”
But New Hope wasn’t perfect – neither was Columbus. Both Hairston and Jackson pointed out that the Falcons didn’t play on their best Friday.
They admitted that part of it was due to an unusual schedule thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday’s game was only the Hawks’ second competition in more than a month.
“It’s difficult because we need to rebuild our team chemistry,” said Jackson. “We have to have our wind under us again. We have to rebuild as a team.
“But we’ll find a way to do it.”