SCOOBA, Miss. - The No. 7 Lions of East Mississippi secured their first-ever ticket to the MACJC state football championship game with a 26-16 semifinal-round home win over 19th-ranked Jones County Saturday afternoon at Sullivan-Windham Field on the Scooba campus.
Winners of six straight games since dropping a 43-26 home decision to now-No. 5 Mississippi Gulf Coast back on Sept. 17, head coach Buddy Stephens' 9-1 EMCC Lions will look to avenge their lone loss of the season by playing host to the two-time defending state champions next Saturday (Nov. 7) in the 2009 MACJC state championship game. The Bulldogs of MGCCC bested Coahoma, 58-21, in the state's other semifinal-round contest played Saturday afternoon in Perkinston.
Kickoff for Saturday's state title game in Scooba is set for 2 p.m. at EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field. Tickets for the championship gridiron battle, pitting this year's respective divisional winners, will be available for purchase on the day of the game at a cost of $10 for adults and $5 for students. The winner will earn the right to play in the Mississippi Bowl, Dec. 6, in Biloxi.
Now 17-3 overall in two seasons under Stephens' guidance, Saturday's playoff victory over Jones County marked the Lions' third win of the season over a ranked opponent (Jones County twice and Northwest Mississippi). In reaching the nine-win mark for the first time since going 9-1 for head coach A.J. Kilpatrick's 1969 Lions' team, East Mississippi becomes the first representative from the MACJC's North Division to compete in the state championship football game since Holmes claimed the 2002 state title.
During a turnover-prone opening half, the home-standing Lions managed to post the lone points of the opening 30 minutes of play during their second possession. On a third-and-two play, preseason All-America quarterback Randall Mackey connected with fellow sophomore Lance Lewis on a 73-yard touchdown reception with 10:39 left in the first quarter. The play marked the fourth time this season that Mackey has hooked up with Lewis on scoring plays of 70 yards or better.
Both teams missed opportunities to put points on the board via the foot during the second quarter. EMCC redshirt freshman kicker Brett Spencer had a 34-yard field goal blocked at the start of the quarter, while JCJC's Jacob Chancellor's 47-yard attempt fell short midway through the period. The Lions would reach the red zone two more times over the final five minutes of the half, but a Mackey interception and a Lewis fumble after a catch would keep the score at 7-0 heading into the intermission.
After the visiting Bobcats cut the deficit to 7-3 on Chancellor's 38-yard field goal at the 11:35 mark, EMCC sophomore Phillip Dimino of West Point pinned JCJC on its 2-yard line with a 41-yard punt. Two plays later, sophomore free safety Anthony Hines picked off his second pass of the game and scored on a 20-yard interception return with 9:13 left in the quarter to make it a 14-3 contest. With a pair of picks in each of his last two games, the former Starkville High School standout raised his team-leading total to six interceptions on the year.
East Mississippi tacked another seven points later in the period when Lewis took a pass from reserve quarterback Brad Henderson of Starkville, cut inside and spun back outside to score from 14 yards out at the 4:48 mark. A former football and basketball all-state performer at Concord (N.C.) High School, Lewis finished the day with five catches for a season-high 161 receiving yards. With a team-high 11 touchdowns on the season, Lewis has eclipsed the century mark for receiving yards in four of his last six outings.
Jones County closed the gap to 21-10 on the first play of the final period, as backup quarterback Robert Ross hit Anthony Jackson with a 5-yard scoring pass. After the two teams traded turnovers four plays apart inside's EMCC's red zone, the Bobcats used some trickery on Halloween day to make it a one-score ballgame midway through the quarter. With JCJC lined up for a 44-yard field-goal attempt with 8:41 left on the clock, holder Chris Lofton found Chancellor wide open in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown pass. However, in trying to go for the two-point conversion, Ross' pass attempt was intercepted by former Northeast Lauderdale product T.J. Ballou and returned 100 yards the other way. Instead of JCJC potentially cutting the margin to just a field goal, the resulting runback put the home team on top by a 23-16 tally.
The Lions used their ensuing possession to take nearly six minutes off the clock, with Spencer's 20-yard field goal capping an 11-play drive and leaving but 3:09 on the game clock. In closing out their season with a 6-4 overall record, the Bobcats could only muster a missed 38-yard field-goal attempt by Chancellor during the remainder of the contest.