MURFEESBORO, Tenn. -- Try anything. Try everything. Finally, something worked.
After a frustrating half trying to solve the problem of Howard's Brandon Walters, the Hawks of Jackson South Side were finally able to come up with the right combination in their TSSAA Class AA semifinal Friday night. Trailing for much of the first three quarters, Hawks head coach Damonn Fuller finally decided to stand his offense on its head, so to speak.
"He was a one-man wrecking crew," Fuller said following South Side's 67-53 comeback win.
"He stopped our penetration, changed our shots. What we finally did was pull him away, away from the basket."
Two quick and pointless fouls soon followed, and with Walters on the bench, the Hustin' Tigers seemed to be at the mercy of the Hawks' Mr. Basketball finalist A.J. Merriweather and point guard Jaylen Barford as the two made 9 of their 11 field goal tries in the final 16 minutes.
Trailing for much of the first half, the Hawks (28-3) outscored the Tigers 46-29 in the second half to reach Saturday's championship game. South Side will meet 36-2 Christ Presbyterian Academy, which beat Livingston Academy 63-48 in the other semifinal.
Jackson media members indicated that the Hawks had not faced a true big man like the Tigers' 6-8 Walters, and he clearly got into their heads in the first half, blocking four shots while scoring eight points.
"I was frustrated, man. I won't lie to you," Merriweather said. "I couldn't get a feel for how he was moving on defense."
The Tigers, meanwhile, were dealing with their own struggles. While shooting 40 percent as a team in the first half, they hit only 1 of 5 3-pointers and quite a few missed shots in close. But after a tentative first quarter, in which both teams scored only nine points, the Tigers' offense briefly was able to find another gear when McGary put Cudjoe Young on the floor.
Young had four points, several rebounds and an assist in seven first-half minutes, and only six points from Merriweather kept the Hawks within four points (24-21) at halftime.
"We should have led by more. A lot more," Howard coach Walt McGary said. "We missed shots, easy shots. But if we could have sustained the same energy we had there in the second half we would have been fine. But the pressure that was extacted on us was kind of intense."
South Side's halftime strategy was first to go into a half-court trapping press. It only served to turn the first part of the third quarter into an Xavier Harris highlight film. At the back end of the Tigers' attack, he scored the team's first eight points as Howard built its lead to seven, 34-27. What turned the game around wasn't the press -- it was South Side's decision to attack the rim in numbers and move Walters as far away from the basket as possible by putting forward Malik Hicks at the top of the lane.
South Side point guard Jaylen Barford, who had two points in the first half, drove the lane fearlessly and came away with seven quick points for the Hawks. As the Tigers were in the process of missing 3 of 4 free throws, South Side began finding its rhythm. Following Barford's lead, Hicks followed suit and scored six consecutive points to put South Side ahead. A Harris three-point play tied the game at 38-38, but Wray Fuller hit the Hawks' first 3-pointer of the game to leave Howard looking up at a 41-38 deficit after three quarters.
"It's about communicating," said Walters. "I had to have my hands up, move my feet. I wasn't focused the way I should have been."
Walters shot only 4 of 9 from the field, 3 of 6 from the foul line, but McGary was not going to let his big man take the hit this night.
"This was a team loss, possibly the worst game we've played this season," he admitted. "We missed shots, lost contact on defense."
About not returning Walters to the fray after foul No.4, McGary shrugged.
"They were still spreading the floor and running clock. He would be put into the same risk of a fifth foul.
"I still believed, right to tonight, that a better overall game was still out there for us to play," he said. "South Side didn't do anything we didn't expect them to. It was all about execution."
It was still just a three-point game with four minutes to play (47-44), but that's where Walters picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench, never to return. South Side went on a 17-1 run and Howard coach McGary brought his young but talented second team in to finish the night.
Harris led the Tigers with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Walters scored 11 with eight boards and Chris Walton added 10 points to the effort. The Tigers hit just 3 of 12 3-pointers and 8 of 15 free throws in what McGary termed "our worst game of the year."
Merriweather hit 9 of 11 free throws to finish with 17 points to go with his 10 rebounds, while Barford scored all but two of his 18 points in the second half. Hicks rounded out the double digit scorers with 12 points.
SOUTH SIDE 67, HOWARD 53
SOUTH SIDE (67) -- Jaylen Barford 18, McNeal 8, Fulelr 5, J.D. Merriweather 17, Malik Hicks 12, White 3, Beard 4.
HOWARD (53) -- Smith 2, Cameron 1, Chris Walton 10, Xavier Harris 19, Brandon Walters 11, McCauley 2, Brown, Norwood, Brummitt 3, Young 4, Strickland 2.
3-point goals: JSS 2 (Fuller, White); Howard 3 (Walton 2, Brummitt). Records: South Side 28-3; Howard 28-6.