Photo/James Pugh

Twenty-nine minutes and 34 seconds of Thursday night’s 32-minute girls’ basketball game belonged to Hattiesburg. The final 15.3 seconds of the second half belonged to South Jones as the Lady Braves chipped away, and eventually erased, an early 12-point deficit to beat the reigning MHSAA Class 5A champs, 55-52.

South Jones remains unbeaten in the early stretch of the 2018-2019 season at 4-0. Hattiesburg falls to 1-2.

“I’m so proud of my girls,” said South Jones head coach Sherri Cooley. “They could have folded. The got down, they got behind, and they could have folded, but they didn’t.”

Junior point-guard Ebony Fulford scored the game’s opening basket, draining a 3-point shot on South Jones’ opening possession. Hattiesburg’s defense didn’t allow another Lady Braves basket till the 2:46 mark of the first period. The Lady Tigers scored 14 points in the meantime. Hattiesburg pushed its lead to 12 later in the first on back-to-back baskets by junior Chaise Stinton.  

South Jones cut Hattiesburg’s lead to eight by the end of the first quarter, 19-11, then went point-for-point with the Lady Tigers in the second period to trail by the same margin at the half, 28-20. 

It wasn’t till the final period before South Jones could put a significant dent into Hattiesburg’s lead. 

“I told them that if we could pick up some rebounds, pick up our defense and hustle then, we could get back in this game,” Cooley said. “I guessed they believed it.”

Two free-throw baskets by Fulford put South Jones within three of Hattiesburg, 43-40, with 5:47 left to play. Free points were the difference in the game. South Jones finished 8-for-11 at the line, while Hattiesburg struggled, making just 12-of-26. 

“We work on free throws every day,” said Cooley. “At some point in every practice, we’re going to work on free throws. Free throws made a difference down the stretch in all games that are close.”

Tied 51-51, senior guard Kelsi Jackson was 2-for-2 from the line in the final minute of play to put South Jones on top, 53-51. After a make and miss on a pair of free throws by Hattiesburg in the final 15 seconds, Fulford sealed the game for South Jones with a layup. She finished with 11 points. 

Jackson led the Lady Braves with 21 points. Dandy Dozen standout Jordan Clark also finished in double-digits with 13.

Melyia Grayson led Hattiesburg with 19 points. Her presence at the post presented South Jones with various problems, both offensively and defensively.

“We just tried to keep a big body on her,” said Cooley. “We also subbed up a lot of our younger girls with big bodies. I know they may not have the experience, but they have the heart. So I tried to sub in some fresh girls inside to make sure we had a body on her.”

South Jones girls return to action next Tuesday night at Quitman. Hattiesburg returns home to host Warren Central Saturday night.