Entering play last week, the Choctaws were colder than the frost that they woke up to on their windows. MC had lost seven of their last nine games, dropping their record to 5-9.
Then, on Thursday, the team returned to Clinton to play their first game in the Dome in nearly two weeks. American Southwest Conference foe East Texas Baptist University sank seven 3-pointers in the first half, while MC went 0-7 from beyond the arc. ETBU gained a 33-27 advantage at the break.
That’s when the ice melted for the Choctaws.
“Our team got focused in the second half,” said head coach Don Lofton.
The team did more than focus. After a respectable 46% shooting clip from the floor in the first half, the Choctaws raised their game to shoot nearly 77% in the second half, including four 3-pointers in five attempts. MC surpassed the 6 point deficit and won the game, 70-77.
“It feels great to get back in the win column. It lifted all of our spirits,” said Lofton. “I feel really fortunate that our team could come back like they did.”
One player set himself apart early and often. “Emmanuel Ezejiofo had a great game,” said Lofton. EZ, as the crowd calls him, scored 15 points in the first half. No other Choctaw had more than 4.
“My teammates trusted me,” said Ezejiofo, “My coaches saw that I was having a pretty good game, so they trusted me with the ball.”
Leading the Choctaws with 33 minutes, the 6’ 4” forward celebrated his birthday with a 27 point effort, including a dunk that rallied the Clinton crowd.
“We had a great crowd and we appreciate every one of them being here,” said Lofton.
The crowd came back again on Saturday, likely motivated the team’s exciting performance on Thursday. The Choctaws made another comeback of their own, in another ASC matchup against LeTourneau.
The YellowJackets had a strong first half, shooting over 52% while hitting eight 3-pointers on their way to a 48-28 lead.
The Choctaws embraced déjà vu and came out of the break ready to fight, despite the 20 point mountain that stood before them. Opening the second half with a 1-9 run, the Choctaws quickly climbed their way back into a competitive situation.
With 11 minutes remaining in the game, LeTourneau extended their lead again with a free throw, 62-46. MC was not ready to give up, and Lakin Ford responded by draining a 3-pointer.
That’s when the defense stepped in. After a prolific first half for the YellowJackets, the Choctaws held them to under 23% shooting from the floor in the second half, without allowing a single basket from 3-point range.
Offensively, MC increased production in the second half, raising shot efficiency 16%.
With around 6 minutes left in the game, LeTourneau gathered their last points of the game.
With a 68-58 shortfall, the Choctaws stepped up. Ford had seven points in the final 6 minutes, including the penultimate 3-point shot that pulled MC within a single point with less than 2 minutes remaining.
The YellowJackets could not respond, missing a layup and allowing Ford to gather the rebound. Ford then eased in a jump shot, giving MC their first lead of the half, 68-69 with 1:19 remaining.
The game was not over yet. LeTourneau had one final chance with a fast break and a few seconds left on the clock. Unwilling to relent, Ford hustled down the court, blocking the final shot with 3 second left on the clock. It gave the Choctaws their fourth straight win at home.
Ford finished the game with a team-leading 18 points and 11 rebounds. MC never led the game by more than 2 points. The Choctaws are now 7-9 (5-8 ASC).
“Our guys have continued to work and were trying to win and do the best we can in every game,” said Lofton. “Certainly that’s what we hope they’ll continue to do.”
Fans were appreciated after the game by Ezejiofo, who expressed himself on Twitter. “The Dome was rocking tonight. #choctaws,” said @Mr_Ezejiofo.
Coach Lofton enjoys the crowd, and welcomes the noise they bring. “Hopefully they’ll come back and see us play again.”
After four straight losses, the Mississippi College women’s basketball team broke through and also beat LeTourneau on Saturday, 61-67. Jaianah Matthew and Cassie Berry led the team with 15 points each. Cara Beverin had 12 points and 11 rebounds. The Lady Choctaws match the men’s 7-9 (5-8 ASC) record.
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor