Player of Game Ewing lifts Natchez with 26 points in state championship game
The MHSAA Class 5A state championship went to the Natchez High School Lady Bulldogs Friday after a hard-fought battle against South Jones High School.
The 54-51 win in the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson gave the Lady Bulldogs their first state championship since 1993.
“It feels amazing to get this win and bring the ball back to Natchez that hasn’t been here in 20-plus years,” head coach Alphaka Moore said. “It’s amazing to say that I was able to do that.”
Sophomore forward Zyaire Ewing earned her player of the game award with 26 points and 16 rebounds in a resilient performance filled with rebounded put backs and isolation plays.
The team entered the coliseum knowing exactly who they were going up against — a tough South Jones team Natchez had played twice earlier this season.
In the first meeting, South Jones gave Natchez its first loss of the season with a 44-38 defeat in the Hattiesburg Coca-Cola Tournament in December.
Natchez won the rematch in the South State championship 34-30 March 1, and less than two weeks later, they were again facing off for the state championship in a packed coliseum.
Just like its first two meetings, Natchez found itself trailing at half time 22-19.
Natchez fans held their breath, but Moore and the Lady Bulldogs knew from experience hard work and determination could bring them out of the first-half hole.
The answer was in Ewing.
The forward had 11 points and nine rebounds at half time, and it was evident with her size and strength that no one could stop her around the rim.
“(Ewing) is really strong under the basket, so I told her to go straight up with the ball, they will give you the basket, go for it,” Moore said.
Moore set Ewing up with a series of isolation plays, giving Ewing the ball at the free-throw line and clearing the right side so Ewing could drive strong to the goal.
South Jones failed to double team Ewing because of solid performances from other key Lady Bulldogs.
Rashonae Rice recorded 13 points and 12 rebounds and Ernesha Chatman scored six points as she utilized the isolation play as well.
In the fourth quarter, Kiana Jones gave Natchez High a 39-38 lead on a put back on Kirdis Clark’s missed lay up with 7 minutes remaining.
The lead was short lived as South Jones’ Jakeyla Miller entered the game after sitting out because of early foul trouble.
The guard entered the game and scored five straight points for the Lady Braves to give them a 44-43 lead.
As the lead swung back and forth, Natchez High found itself down 51-50 with 1:15 left in regulation.
Moore called a time out as she knew it was now the time to make a strong move for the lead.
Out of the timeout, the Lady Bulldogs set up the isolation play for Ewing, which had been working throughout the second half.
Ewing drove hard to the right and scooped the ball into the basket to give the Lady Bulldogs a 52-51 lead with 34.2 seconds left and from there, it was about protecting the ball, draining the clock and hitting clutch free throws.
Rice and Ewing both went 1-2 at the free throw line and sealed the state title 54-51.
Moore said she was proud of her players to hit crucial free throws in such a high-intensity atmosphere.
“Everyone talked about us not hitting our free throws last game, but we have a young team and they were nervous,” Moore said. “But when we came back to the coliseum, their nerves were better and they calmed down and hit those free throws.”
Natchez went 13-24 from the free-throw line.
Ewing said she didn’t realize how her statistics stacked up until she was given the MVP award.
But most importantly, she said she was just excited to receive the golden ball.
“It means everything, this is all we ever wanted,” Ewing said.
Chatman said, as the team’s point guard, it was her job to keep everyone level headed during such an aggressive game.
“I had to keep my mindset focused and pay attention to the tempo of the game,” Chatman said. “It was hard, but we got through it.”
Natchez finished its season 28-2.