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Coming back for Moore: Lady Bulldogs rally twice to capture second straight state title

Natchez High School’s Skylar Morgan steals the ball away from West Jones High School’s Qua Ducksworth late in the MHSAA state championship game. Morgan was named player of the game for her nine straight points in the fourth quarter leading Natchez to a 74-66 win. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Natchez High School’s Skylar Morgan steals the ball away from West Jones High School’s Qua Ducksworth late in the MHSAA state championship game. Morgan was named player of the game for her nine straight points in the fourth quarter leading Natchez to a 74-66 win. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

JACKSON — Two double-digit runs by West Jones nearly doomed Natchez High School’s attempt to repeat as state champions. But Natchez head coach Alphaka Moore wouldn’t allow the deficits to overcome her team.

“We knew what we had to do,” Moore said. “We had to stay focused.”

After Rashonae Rice scored the first basket of the game, West Jones went on a 17-2 run in the first quarter before taking a 24-6 lead in the second quarter.

West Jones’ zone defense, combined with Natchez’s early turnovers and missed layup opportunities, put the Lady Bulldogs in a hole that Ernesha Chatman had to use her speed to get out of.

After missing three 3-pointers, Chatman lined up, with her team down 24-12, and found the bottom of the net to get the lead down to nine. Following the 3-pointer, Chatman led a break down the floor and pulled up at the free throw line to sink a jumper, making the game 24-17.

“She is the energy,” Moore said. “She was able to beat anybody on that team when she had the ball in her hands.”

Natchez guard Kirdis Clark made a free throw and converted a layup to bring the Lady Bulldogs within six before she sunk a 3-pointer to cut West Jones lead to one.

The Lady Bulldogs’ comeback erased West Jones’ once large lead to 30-29 at halftime, but in the midst of the comeback, Zyaire Ewing, who led Natchez in points per game this season, was seated on the bench after being limited to two points in the first half. Ewing, who took on many double teams in the post during the first half, was flustered.

“I was frustrated in the first part of the game, but I didn’t let my (teammates) know that,” Ewing said. “The shots weren’t falling, but I just kept playing.”

Moore said she could see that Ewing was struggling, so she kept encouraging her as the game went on.

“Zyaire has a lot of pressure on her because she’s a Dandy Dozen,” Moore said. “But you’ve got to take what comes along with it. She had a lot of shots that didn’t fall, but she played through it and made the shots that counted.”

Like the first half, Natchez was slow to get its offense moving at the start of the third quarter. Taylor Argue and Clark each hit 3-pointers in the quarter, but an 11-0 run would eventually give West Jones a 54-42 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Skylar Morgan, who was named the most valuable player of the game for her four timely steals and 15 points, said her and her teammates never got down on themselves, but instead, encouraged each other to be more vocal.

“We were getting frustrated, but we had to talk to each other,” said Morgan who scored 13 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Morgan got Natchez on the board in the fourth quarter with an open shot, and followed with another jumper on the ensuing possession to cut West Jones’ lead to single digits.

Down 55-46, Ewing, who finished the game with seven points, used a post move to free up a shot near the rim, converting her first field goal of the game at the 6:16 mark of the fourth quarter. Following two Clark free throws, Morgan began a streak of nine-straight Natchez points that would tie the game in the final period.

Morgan then hit two free throws, finished off an and-one opportunity and hit another free throw before she took the biggest shot of her life with three minutes to play in the game.

Morgan, who was wide open on the corner, sunk a 3-pointer to tie the game at 59. Ewing gave the team its first lead since the first bucket of the first quarter, but West Jones came right back to tie things up.

With two-and-a-half minutes to play, Chatman drew contact but didn’t get a whistle, jumping and hesitating in mid-air to time her release. The circus shot fell and gave Natchez a 63-61 lead.

“I was just praying it went in,” Chatman said.

Then, Clark scored back-to-back buckets — one of which came from a long pass from Ewing after a defensive rebound — to give Natchez a 67-61 lead.

After Natchez secured the win with free throws, Morgan was announced as the MVP of the game, drawing an emotional scream as she went to midcourt to accept it.

“This is awesome,” Morgan said. “I just want to do it again next year.”