Then there were moments when the Chieftains looked out of place.
Unfortunately, the bad moments outweighed the good as the Chieftains’ first visit to Jackson in at least 20 seasons turned into a 62-54 loss to the South Leake Wildcats in quarterfinal action on the opening day of the tournament.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Okolona coach Bobby Ford said. “We made just a few too many mistakes, and when we were making runs, South Leake seemed to respond every time.”
Both teams responded in dramatic fashion at times during the contest. One of the momentum swings in favor of Okolona occurred in the third quarter.
A pair of 3-pointers by Ty Parker and Reggie Gunn spurred a 10-0 Okolona run that pulled the Chieftains within 41-39 of the defending 2A state champions. The game stayed close and in doubt into the fourth period, with Okolona pulling in front 52-50 on a Gunn rebound and basket with 3 minutes, 49 seconds left.
But aided by an adjustment in its press, South Leake scored the next eight points over a three minute span to take a 58-52 lead with 1:19 left. A Kareem Moore basket cut the South Leake margin to four points with 1:08 to play, but missed shots in the final minute spelled the doom of Okolona.
“We were not used to those momentum swings,” South Leake coach Richard Rivers said. “Late in the game, we moved it (full court press) closer to the halfcourt line, and maybe that was a different look for Okolona.”
“We didn’t play our best, and I thought if we played our best, we had a chance based on the matchups I saw in the first quarter,” Ford said. “Every time we got the lead, they responded.”
One of the first Okolona leads came on the heels of an 11-0 scoring run that featured two baskets by the hard-working Moore for a 19-11 lead just seconds into the second quarter. Then momentum swung the other way as South Leake scored 16 straight points, and by the half led 35-22.
“I think our kids lost focus during that run because they wanted to win so badly,” Ford said. “Of course their quickness had something to do with some of their easy baskets.
“That was the difference in the ball game, them being able to get down so quick. And also get some easy put-back baskets.”
Okolona started cutting into that halftime deficit with two baskets by Martavious Ford that helped to cut the margin to 35-27. Then on the 10-0 run later in the quarter, Moore and Ford each got two baskets close in to cap the run and cut the score to 41-39.
The Chieftains then put together another run, this one a 9-0 effort, that carried into the final period that gave them a 48-45 lead.
Moore led Okolona with 17 points while leading scoring Gunn was held to 13, seven off his season average.
“The few times Reggie touched the ball, I thought he rushed his shot,” said Ford, who saw South Leake play a box-in-one on Gunn for most of the game. “It was expected, though.”
South Leake advances to play Hinds AHS Friday at 8 p.m.