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Making their fourth straight appearance in the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship, the Lions of East Mississippi Community College couldn’t overcome an early 12-0 deficit plus a poor perimeter shooting effort in dropping a 63-54 decision to 13th-seeded Howard College (Texas) during Monday’s first-round tournament action held at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.

Seeded 20th in this week’s single-elimination national tournament, the Lions missed their first 10 field-goal attempts, including seven from beyond the three-point arc, and committed five early turnovers before freshman Mack Foster connected on a trey attempt for the team’s first field goal seven minutes into the contest.  The Howard Hawks reeled off the game’s first dozen points before sophomore post player Earnest Hunter hit two free throws for EMCC’s first points of the game coming with 14:30 left in the half.

The Lions cut the margin to seven points a couple of times during the opening half but trailed 36-25 at the break primarily because of the shooting percentage discrepancy.  EMCC shot a paltry 29 percent (9-of-31) from the field through the first 20 minutes, including just 2-of-18 (11%) from beyond the three-point arc.  In contrast, the Hawks made a blistering 68 percent (15-of-22) of their first-half shot attempts.

Though their shooting touch didn’t improve much following intermission, the Lions’ defensive intensity and increased energy level kept them in the game throughout the final 20 minutes of play.  Despite struggling with 33-percent, second-half shooting (11-of-33), including just 1-of-13 on three-point tries, EMCC ratcheted up its defense and commanded the rebounding edge to stay within reach of the Hawks.

Though they out-rebounded Howard 42-35 in the game and moreover on the offensive glass by a commanding 21-10 margin, it was a handful of missed rebounding opportunities late in the contest that could have totally changed the final few minutes of play.  After EMCC All-American candidate Jarekious Bradley pulled the Lions to within five points (56-51) at the 2:00 mark with an up-and-under move to the basket, Howard’s 7-foot center Goran Huskic collected a pair of timely offensive rebounds down the stretch to help thwart EMCC’s chances of a possible comeback attempt.

Even so, the resilient Lions still weren’t quite done just yet despite their cold shooting throughout the game.  Micah Walker’s 1-of-2 effort from the charity stripe with a little more than a minute left made it a six-point contest.  However, the Hawks promptly received a three-point play from Jacob Thomas to make it 61-52 and all but seal the victory with 56.8 seconds remaining.

Head coach Mark White’s EMCC Lions end their season at 20-8 as four-time reigning NJCAA Region 23 champions as well as four-time defending MACJC North Division regular-season champions.  Combined with the fact that East Mississippi Community College is the only Division I men’s basketball program to have reached the NJCAA Tournament each of the last four years, only three other schools besides EMCC in this year’s 24-team field have even managed to make it back to the national tournament this year for a second straight time.

With Bradley, the NJCAA’s sixth-leading scorer on the year, being limited to just nine points on 4-of-15 shooting against the Hawks, Foster led the Lions with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting.  The West Bolivar High School product single-handedly kept EMCC in the game offensively in the opening half by scoring 13 of the team’s 25 first-half points.  His five made field goals through the opening 20 minutes of play were one more than the rest of the EMCC team combined.

EMCC freshman guard Jacolby Mobley, of Starkville, tallied nine of his 13 points in the second half.

For the game, the Lions shot just 31.3 percent (20-of-64) from the field as a team, including a dreadful 3-of-31 (9.7%) from beyond the three-point line.  The Lions did clamp down defensively following the halftime break, limiting Howard College to only 35-percent shooting (8-of-23) in the second half.                  

Improving to 29-5 overall on the year with the win, Howard College, of Big Spring, Texas and NJCAA Region 5, advances to meet home-standing and fourth-seeded Hutchinson Community College during Tuesday’s second-round action at 6:30 p.m.  The Hawks were led by Cameron Forte with a game-high 18 points, though the nation’s No. 3 scorer was held to just two second-half points on only 1-of-5 shooting after halftime.  Ladon Carter and Huskic followed with 12 and 10 points, respectively, for the winners.

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