The Hattiesburg Tigers looked right at home in the early going of Tuesday’s Class 5A semifinal versus Center Hill. Inside Jackson’s Mississippi Coliseum, they went back and forth with the Mustangs for much of the first quarter and even led 4-0 in the opening minutes. The game was tied 15-15 late in the period, but not soon after, things began to spiral out of control for Ernie Watson’s Tigers.
“I thought my little second group, my subs, would come in and just give us some energy and spell them because I knew this was gonna be a long game,” Watson said. “They just fell apart. The lights and the cameras got to them because they were a little too nervous.”
Center Hill closed the first quarter with an 11-0 scoring run, taking a 26-15 lead into the second. Though the Tigers cut the deficit to one point late in the period off a three-pointer from Cameron Brown, they were never able to regain a lead. In the fourth, the Mustangs went back up by double digits on the way to cruising to a 73-69 win and a berth into Friday’s Class 5A title game.
“I thought we played well; I thought we played tough,” Watson said. “They [Center Hill] are a very good basketball team with very good guard play.”
Meanwhile, Watson’s team played without their top forward, Nick Walker, for extended periods of time in Tuesday’s game as he dealt with foul trouble.
“That’s our heart and soul in the inside,” Watson said of Walker. “He takes care of the middle for us, and when he’s not in there, it opens up the lame for them, and they did what they wanted to do.”
Regardless, Walker finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds. Chris Lewis had 19 points to lead the Tigers, who finish the season 24-9.
“It’s a great accomplishment to be in the final four and be one of the four best teams in the state,” Watson said. “We will honor that. Whenever the hurt gets over, will honor that.”
After that, their focus will be on the 2019-2020 season. The Tigers, a junior-heavy team this year, will return most of their top players, including Lewis, Walker and Brown. Watson says he’s confident the group will lead them back to Jackson next season.
“I’m very confident,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of senior leadership next year. Hopefully we can get a couple more pieces in there, and they do what they have to do. And hopefully we can make that ride.”