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5A Playoffs: Jay'len McNair's jumper lifts Florence over Hattiesburg 44-41

The Tigers rallied to erase a 10-point deficit in the fourth, but the Eagles made big plays down the stretch

HATTIESBURG – Teams that have players with postseason experience tend to find ways to win over teams that are not as seasoned in the crucible of playoff basketball.

That was the case for Florence Saturday night in the quarterfinal round of the Class 5A playoffs against Hattiesburg. The Eagles weathered a big comeback from the Tigers in the final minutes and prevailed 44-41 in front of a boisterous crowd at Watkins Gymnasium.

Florence (27-2) advances to the 5A Final Four at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, making it to the Big House for the third time in the past four seasons, although the two previous times came when the Eagles were in Class 4A. Hattiesburg finished 15-13.

The Eagles will battle Holmes County Central at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Class 5A semifinals. Holmes County defeated Provine 51-40 in another quarterfinal clash.

“We lost the key players from our Final Four team of a year ago,” said Hattiesburg coach Ernie Watson. “We’ve got two sophomores, two juniors and a senior, who is the only one with any experience from last year.”

Despite the odds, the youthful Tigers gave no ground in a surprise playoff run that came up just short in the final seconds.

Florence senior Jay’len McNair hit a short jump shot with 17 seconds remaining in the game to give the Eagles the lead again, after HHS had stormed back to tie it up after falling 10 points behind midway through the fourth quarter.

“I told the kids they had to find a way to get back in the game,” said Watson. “I said there’s no play I can call, nothing I can run that will do it. Just play hard and make some plays.”

Florence never trailed in a game that started out at a very deliberate pace. It was more than two minutes into the game before either team scored, the first bucket coming on a 3-point shot from Eagle sophomore Carter Mullins.

“We like to play up-tempo when we can,” said Florence coach Darrin Chancellor. “But we didn’t want to get out on the edge. They had a couple of good shooters, and we didn’t want them to get in good spots, so we stayed in a zone most of the game.”

Florence led 10-5 late in the first quarter before Hattiesburg sophomore Christian Moody sank a 3-ball from the left corner to pull the Tigers to within 10-8 at the end of the period.

It was the first of three critical shots that Moody hit that kept HHS in the game in the second quatrer.

The Eagles opened the period on an 8-0 run, as McNair, a 6-foot-7 power forward, disrupted the Tiger defense. He and Mullins got drives down the lane for layups to key the Florence rally.

But Moody swished a pair of 3-pointers, sandwiched around a turnover to get the Tigers back in the game.

“I was just doing what the coach told me to do,” said Moody. “He told me I needed to make some shots. Anything to help the team win.”

Florence led 21-17 at halftime, and the two teams battled back and forth in the third quarter.

The Eagles led by eight at one point in the period, but each time it looked like they might pull away, Hattiesburg was able to score. Junior Jabar Walker grabbed two offensive rebounds and converted putback baskets to keep the Tigers going.

Sophomore Steven McCullon Jr. got a fast-break layup in the final seconds of the third quarter to close the margin to three, 32-29, but Mullins converted a 15-foot jumper at the other end that just beat the buzzer to end the period.

That seemed to spark Florence, which opened the fourth quarter with a 7-2 run and took a 41-31 lead with 4:30 to play on a three-point play from Mullins, who was fouled while hitting a 12-foot jumper.

With the game seemingly in their hands, though, the Eagles let Hattiesburg back in the game again.

“It was mostly us,” said Chancellor. “We made some crucial mistakes, had some turnovers. We weren’t executing properly what we were trying to run.”

Senior Devin Jordan got open down low for a layup to spark the Tigers’ 10-0 rally. A one-and-done on defense and a long entry pass found McCullon free for a fast-break layup.

Walker got his third putback layup, then a turnover got junior Kelby McKellar in rhythm for a 3-point basket to make it 41-40.

The Tigers had a chance to take the lead after another turnover and a foul in the backcourt put Moody on the line for a one-and-one. He made the first one for a 41-41 tie but missed the bonus and the game remained tied with 2:24 to go.

“We started keeping the ball away from their best players,” said McCullon. “Their helpside defense wasn’t moving fast enough and we were able to penetrate and get the ball out to our shooters, finding the open man.”

Florence missed a 3-point shot, and Hattiesburg got the rebound, but missed the shot at their end. However, a bad pass turned it back over to the Tigers, and they chose to try to run the final minute off the clock and take the last shot.

“We had what we wanted right there,” said Watson. “The kids did what they were supposed to do. We wanted the last shot. Either we were going to overtime or win the ball game. But we lost the ball.”

McCullon made a move to penetrate the lane and the ball was knocked away, into the hands of Mullins, who got a deep pass to McNair along the baseline from 3 feet out. He put up a turnaround jumper that Jordan, who gotten back on defense, could not stop.

“My team needed a play right there,” said McNair, who finished with 17 points for the Eagles. It was an easy shot for me. I just had to make it. I can always get that look, and most of the time I’m going to make it.

“This feels awesome. We’ve been there a couple of times before and fell short. I believe this is our time.”

Moody got a decent look at a 3-point shot for Hattiesburg that was off the mark and with 6.2 seconds, the Eagles converted one of two foul shots, then a steal to nail it down.

“We started in November learning and watching this team grow up,” said Watson. “To take a 26-2 team like Florence down to the wire like that, well, you’ve grown up. I’m proud of my kids and I think the future is bright.”