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State basketball tourney begins

JACKSON — The Pascagoula Panthers ended Picayune’s season in the opening round of the Class 5A boys South State Playoffs.

But the Panthers didn’t stop there.

For the fourth straight year, the Panthers have qualified for the overall state basketball tournament in Jackson.

South State champion Pascagoula (24-6) will have not played in nine days by the time they take the floor again, for its 5A semifinal against North runner-up Vicksburg (17-8). The game is set for 2:30 p.m. on Monday at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.

Laurel (20-11) faces two-time defending state champion Callaway (29-1) in the other semifinal at 8 p.m. Monday. The two winners face off for the state title at 8 p.m. on March 15.

The overall event began Friday.

Natchez, South Jones, Canton and New Hope will vie for the girls 5A title.

Pascagoula has lost in the state semifinals three straight years: to Vicksburg in overtime as a 6A school in 2011, to Callaway in 2012 and to Provine last year. This season’s Panthers have won 18 straight games, including a thrilling 59-58 comeback victory over host Laurel last Saturday in the South State title game.

“I kept telling our (players) ‘something good is going to happen if we keep working,’” Pascagoula head coach Ron Norman said. “And it did. But our goal is not just to get there, it’s to bring home that gold (championship) ball.”

The victory over Laurel came after Pascagoula trailed 16-0 in the first quarter. The Panthers didn’t take their first lead until early in the third quarter, but were up by as many as eight before the Tornadoes surged back into the lead on a pair of Octavious Cooley free throws with 15 seconds remaining.

Cooley was a wide receiver on the Laurel football team that Picayune beat in the South State finals last season

But Pascagoula point guard La’Dartrean Deas raced almost the length of the court for the game-winning lay-in with five seconds to play.

Norman is in his first year at the helm of the Panthers. He came to Pascagoula with a championship pedigree. The 40-year-old Bay Springs native coached Wayne County to the 2011 state title and two other trips to Jackson before taking over the Panthers following the retirement of Tony Combs last year.

Pascagoula has never won a state championship in basketball, coming closest when it lost to Florence in the 1977 Class AA finals.

If Pascagoula defeats Vicksburg (17-9) on Monday the Panthers (24-6) will likely run into Callaway (34-1) for the 5A state title.

Malik Newman, considered the nation’s top-ranked junior, leads Callaway. The son of former Mississippi State forward Horatio Webster has more than 20 scholarship offers.

Three other Coast teams, Gulfport’s boys in 6A, Harrison Central’s girls in 6A and Bay’s girls in 4A, qualified for the overall state tournament.

In addition to Newman, the event is filled with plenty of star power.

In the Class 2A, Victoria Vivans leads Scott Central in its quest for back-to-back titles.

Vivans, the state’s career scoring leader, has signed with Mississippi State. She scored a state record 68 points in a playoff game a few weeks ago.

Vanderbilt signee Christa Reed leads Bay High in the 4A state semifinals on Tuesday against Indianola Gentry. Reed scored a career high 45 points last month in a win over Ocean Springs. She made 14-of-14 3-point shots in that win. Bay High is considered a favorite to repeat as Class 4A girls Champions.

The 6A boys finals feature Grenada’s Joniah White and Madison Central’s Xavian Singleton, both of whom are headed to Louisiana Tech.