By David Wheeler
Special to the Journal
The voice of Grant Pate was coming and going on Friday.
Easy to understand, with the Itawamba Community College head men’s basketball coach less than 24 hours removed from his Indians winning the MACJC State Tournament 73-72 over the East Mississippi Lions.
It’s the first state title for the program since 2009.
“Our guys certainly fed off the crowd,” said Pate, with ICC as the host school of the tournament. “At the half, I was still worried about our defense.
“We opened the second half with a good run, but East made a run to get back in the game. Down the stretch, we converted on our free throws, and it was a team effort.”
Itawamba (17-9) held a halftime lead of 37-32, and led by as much as 55-37 with 11 minutes, 57 seconds to play in the second half before East Mississippi rallied to leave the game in suspense until the final seconds.
The Indians began the 2013-14 season with a 6-4 pre-Christmas mark including a 2-0 North Division start. After the holiday break when Itawamba hit its North schedule, the Indians ran off four straight wins.
Itawamba struggled a bit on the road the second half of its North slate, but still finished with a 9-3 division record that was good enough to earn the right to host the state tournament.
“The one bright spot through our division schedule was that we were playing well at home, defending our home turf,” Pate said. “We shot the ball well during the tournament.
“Our leadership matured during the season, and we had sophomores who worked extremely hard and were vocal leaders.”
Alex Anderson from Memphis, Johnathan McGee from Raymond, and Tory Rice from Starkville helped to provide that leadership on the floor for Pate.
Anderson led ICC with 19 points. McGee scored 14 and Rice delivered his 11th double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Itawamba will continue its season Thursday, playing Northwest at 6 p.m. in the first round of the Region 23 Tournament at Mississippi College. The Indians are the tourney’s second seed.