Ellisville, Miss. – Kendall Stafford made certain that an exclamation point was placed onto the end of Northeast Mississippi Community College's exhilarating state semifinal matchup.
Stafford's sweet slam dunk with less than 15 seconds remaining sealed the Tigers' 91-88 victory over Southwest Mississippi Community College in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) State Tournament on Wednesday, March 1.
Northeast (19-6) advances to the state championship to face host Jones County Junior College, who eliminated Holmes Community College in the other second round matchup, on Thursday, March 2 in Ellisville.
The Corinth High School graduate had a sensational game with a career-high 27 points. Stafford was 10-of-18 from the floor, including a 50-percent success rate from long distance, and grabbed six rebounds as well.
He clinched the victory for the Tigers by completing an old-fashioned three-point play with just 13 seconds to go. The sequence started with a beautiful one-handed jam in which Stafford drove the baseline and was fouled on an attempted charge at the basket.
"I just turned the corner and I saw him in the lane," said Stafford. "I had already gone up so I just had to dunk on him. I knew we were going to have to play big. All of us. So I just did my part and played for my brothers."
Northeast trailed as the clock reached the final minute. But Shunn Buchanan banged home a three-point jumper that was assisted by his brother Leroy to push the Tigers ahead for good at 87-86.
The younger Buchanan added a free throw late to account for Northeast's winning margin. The Bears (17-8) were able to get off a last-ditch effort, but it fell shy of the goal to secure the Tigers' place in the state title matchup.
"I thought it was an exciting game," Northeast head coach Cord Wright said. "Both teams competed at a high level. We were fortunate to make some plays late and come out with a win."
The contest featured 16 different lead changes and 10 other instances in which the score was tied. Southwest actually held the largest advantage of the entire game at 11 points midway through the opening half.
The Tigers got back into the matchup behind an 11-2 run that lasted just over two minutes. Bryce Smith got things going with a dunk while Stafford accounted for eight points in that stretch.
Northeast trailed 39-38 at the break, but quickly went up moments into the second on a pair of free throws by Zach Hudson. The lead shifted frequently from that instant throughout the second half.
The Bears seemingly pulled away once again at 73-64 with 7:32 showing on the clock. However, a 10-0 run that was capped by a Darius Williams trey gave the Tigers a 74-73 lead only two minutes later.
Northeast made six consecutive free throws to keep pace with Southwest over the final minutes before the heroics of Buchanan and Stafford in the final 60 seconds of the contest.
"I've got tough kids," said Wright. "We recruit kids from winning programs that are used to winning and being in these environments and I think it pays off in these type of games."
Leroy Buchanan followed Stafford with a stellar outing of his own. He compiled 18 points for his 26th straight game in double figures plus had seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.
"We never give up and we've got multiple scorers," he said. "That's what makes our team so great. You shut one person down then somebody else is going to get there's. It feels great to knock off the defending champ."
Shunn Buchanan poured in 17 points and five dimes while Williams completed the list of double-digit scorers for the Tigers with 11 points. Smith was solid in the post as well with seven points and five boards.
Both squads shot at a high percentage with Northeast connecting on 55.2-percent of its field goals while the Bears were also successful at a near 50-percent rate. The Tigers had a plus-six margin in rebounding and 19 total assists.
Northeast has reached the state championship contest for the first time since capturing the crown in 2000. It is the second year in a row that the Tigers are playing for a major title after winning the 2016 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 23 Tournament.