JACKSON – Hattiesburg coach Ernie Watson simply shook his head and uttered “It wasn’t meant to be” after the Tigers 56-51 loss to Lake Cormorant on Tuesday night.
The Tigers were forced to become road warriors after falling short in their district tournament. As a No. 3 seed Hattiesburg pulled off road wins over Natchez, West Jones and Pascagoula to get back to the Big House.
“They did a heck of a job of getting here and a heck of a season,” Watson said. “Last week was a challenge. It’s something that nobody has done before with going on the road three times and get here so I’m proud of them for that.”
In the first half of the semifinal game against Lake Cormorant (20-7), the Tigers looked like they were carrying the momentum from their playoff streak.
Hattiesburg (13-7) trailed early on and faced a 16-6 deficit however, the Tigers found life and cut the lead to 17-14 with the help of an 8-2 run. According to Watson, one of the keys in his team’s early success was by taking advantage of the Gators’ weakness of winning offensive rebounds.
“That’s one of (Lake Cormorant’s) weaknesses,” Watson said. “They don’t offensive rebound well or block out. That’s something we saw on film. We tried to take advantage of it. We did the best we could. We just couldn’t get the ball in the basket.”
The second quarter carried similar momentum, as the first five buckets changed the lead, but Lake Cormorant held the upper hand heading into the half as the Gators went on a 5-0 to hold a 28-22 lead.
The difference in the game came in the third quarter, as the Tigers fell into a five-minute and 20-second scoring drought which was too much for the Tigers to overcome late in the game.
“If we can’t make layups and free throws, then we don’t deserve to win here,” Watson said. “We came in with the game plan to do that. It was working at first, and then all of a sudden, it just stopped. Hats off to (Lake Cormorant).
“We couldn’t score. We made one 3-pointer the whole game. They are a tough team inside. They could get to the basket and do what they do. That’s what we tried to tell them that we have to match that, and we didn’t do that.”
The drought allowed the Gators to go on a 10-0 run and build as much as a 13-point lead.
Despite falling behind, Hattiesburg erased the double-digit lead and closed the lead to one possession as Lake Cormorant went 7 of 16 from the free-throw line.
Like the Gators, the Tigers also struggled from the free-throw line as they went 4 of 8 from the free-throw line in the quarter and 8 of 16 in the game.
“We were just trying to get points,” Watson said. “That’s what we were telling them. We told them to foul the people that we needed to foul and cut it to three with the ball, and we turn it over.”
Hattiesburg managed to get the ball back with 13 seconds left, trailing 54-51, but a late foul sent Lake Cormorant back to the line and helped the Gators seal their win.
Leading Hattiesburg in scoring was Princeton Edwards, who scored 14 points. Malik Walker totaled 12 points, while Alex Jordan scored seven points.
For Lake Cormorant, the Gators were led by Keithean Brooks, who scored 19 points and Donoran Sanders, who totaled 15 points.
Despite the loss, Watson said that he had nothing but respect for his team that pulled together such a late run while having to deal with so much adversity throughout the season. The run helped the Tigers returns to the semifinals for the first since 2019.
“We brought back one starter from last year’s team,” Watson said. “They had to make a niche with the program, and they made their niche last week. I was proud of them on their part. We didn’t win the division tournament. For them to go on the road three games straight because of the weather, COVID, and everything else, it’s been a trying season.
“We couldn’t really develop the youngness like we could because of canceled games and the virus and everything, but I’m proud of them. They turned the corner at the right time and started listening. It just didn’t fall for us tonight.”