HATTIESBURG - Caronica Jackson knew if her Hattiesburg High Lady Tigers were going to advance past Tuesday's semifinal game in the Region 7-6A Tournament, they would have to turn around their mode of operation.
Instead of their usual slow start, the Lady Tigers played as good a first half as they've played all season, and the result was a 59-51 victory over Hancock at Watkins Gymnasium.
Hattiesburg (17-8) advanced to the tournament championship game at 6 p.m. Friday against Harrison Central, which defeated Gulfport 39-27 in the other girls semifinal. Hancock finished its season 24-5.
"We talked about that all week, ever since we found out we were playing Hancock," said Jackson. "We haven't been a first-half team at all. For some reason, we like to play from behind. But this is playoff basketball, and you don't win playing from behind."
No, indeed. The Lady Tigers came out at the start with authority, and after a brief exchange of the lead, Hattiesburg took command, outscoring the Lady Hawks 20-14 in the first quarter and never trailed thereafter.
Hattiesburg built as much as a 14-point lead late in the second quarter, and it was the Lady Hawks who were forced to play from behind.
"Every other game we've played this year we came out slow, but we knew we had to come out strong tonight," said Hattiesburg junior guard Jazmin Boyd, who had 23 points to lead all scorers. "I just stepped up for my team. They really needed me and I came through."
The Lady Tigers won it by going right at Hancock, getting to the basket for layups and drawing fouls. Hattiesburg made 8 of 14 shots from the field (57.1 percent) in the first quarter, and 12 of 23 (52.2 percent) in the first half.
"Our game plan was to come out and get the ball on the inside," said Jackson. "We did that, we got to the free throw line and we finished."
While Hattiesburg was called for just five fouls for the game, Hancock was whistled for 22. And the Lady Tigers made that strategy pay off, converting 21 of 27 foul shots, including 12 of 15 in the fourth quarter, after the Lady Hawks rallied in the second half.
"I thought we played a terrible first half, and the recovery in the second half was just chipping away, chipping away," said Hancock coach Pam Slayton. "It was really about making shots, being a little stronger on defense.
"But it's tough to stop Hattiesburg defensively. We put them on the free throw line way too many times, and we couldn't overcome that."
Nevertheless, the Lady Hawks gave it a good try. Tiffany Eakins swished a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half, and after a stop on defense, Savannah Saucier hit a 10-foot jumper to shave Hattiesburg's margin to 31-22 at intermission.
The Lady Hawks got themselves back in the game in the second half by operating their inside-outside game, hitting 5 of 10 from 3-point range in the second half, but also getting down low for layups.
"One minute we were going man, and they got us down low for three in a row," said Jackson. "Then we'd go zone and they were hitting the 3. Finally, we just started packing it in on them, and started getting better results that way."
Hancock cut the Hattiesburg lead to two points on two occasions in the fourth quarter, but each time the Lady Tigers had an answer.
With the score 41-39, Boyd got loose for a layup on a drive down the lane. Then after Leigh Beaver responded with a layup for Hancock, Johnta Hughes made 1 of 2 foul shots, Tillman got a steal and fed Boyd for another layup, and Hattiesburg was able to finish strong.
Beaver led Hancock with 17 points and Eakins added 13 points for the Lady Hawks.