Booneville, Miss. – A little additional time in the gymnasium certainly did not hurt Northeast Mississippi Community College basketball athlete Keldrick Lesley come game time on Monday evening.
After putting in an extra 1,000 shots earlier in the day, Lesley scored a game-high 16 points in his return to the court from an illness to lead the Tigers to an 82-74 win against Gadsden State (Ala.) Community College at Bonner Arnold Coliseum.
"It felt good to get back on the floor," said the former Booneville High School standout. "I think we came out and played well on the defensive end and made our open shots."
Lesley entered the contest off the bench and drained back-to-back three-pointers in the span of 45 seconds as Northeast extended its advantage to 33-24 with 4:29 remaining in the opening half.
However, the Cardinals scored 15 of the final 20 points in the period, including a trey just before the horn sounded by Pat Edmondson, to take a 39-38 lead at the break.
The Tigers (3-6) jumped ahead for good less than three minutes into the second on Lesley's third make of the night from behind the arc.
He added a two-point jumper moments later and Cameron Shorty recorded an old fashioned three-point play to cap a quick 8-0 spurt to put Northeast up 46-39.
Gadsden State came as close as two points to the Tigers multiple times, but Northeast used the free throw line to its benefit down the stretch to seal a big victory before conference action opens later this week.
Northeast was an astounding 25 of 29 from the charity stripe during the second half. Ladarius Waits was 10 of 14 while Tyre Mallard was perfect in six tries in the final 20 minutes to pace the effort.
Overall, the Tigers shot a season-best 81.6 percent on free shots while the Cardinals (4-3) were only 60.5 percent.
"I've been telling the guys since the first day I got here that free throws and layups will find you a lot of wins," said Northeast head coach Cord Wright. "It was the difference in the second half because of the way the game was called."
A total of 61 fouls, 36 after the intermission, were whistled, sending shooters to the line for a combined 76 attempts.
Mallard put an exclamation point on the matchup late when he took a Waits pass on the baseline and completed a one-handed dunk.
The Tigers featured a stout defense that kept in check the second best scorer in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Jay Watkins, who averages 32.6 points per outing, was held to a yearly low of 13.
Wright credited Northeast post players Dexter Stafford, Al Azulphar and Shorty for halting one of the country's most premier athletes. Together, the trio brought in 21 boards, blocked six shots and altered numerous other endeavors into the paint by Watkins and his teammates.
"We did a great job of carrying out the scouting report and doing what we were supposed to," the first-year headman said. "(Watkins) had a tough job shooting over the top of Al and Dexter made some great plays defensively down the stretch."
Three more Tigers joined Lesley in double figures, led by a 14-point performance by Waits. Mallard added 12 while Shorty tallied 11.
Deshawn Moore headed the Cardinals' offensive output with 14 points. Northeast registered a plus-11 rebounding margin.
(W) Gadsden State 89, Northeast 80
The Lady Tigers dropped in a season-high in total points, but could not overcome a strong second half by visiting Gadsden State.
Sarah Garner's three-point make with 2:26 left in the contest put the Lady Cardinals ahead for good. A very competitive matchup saw the teams exchange the lead five times.
Free throws were again a deciding factor as Gadsden State connected on 9 of 10 over the final 90 seconds and 25 of 32 (78.1 percent) after the intermission.
Lacey Buchanon and Taylor Frazier collaborated for 34 points in the last period. Buchanon and Frazier paced the Lady Cardinals (7-2) with 32 and 23 points, respectively.
Northeast showed no signs of a drop off after a week away from the floor due to the Thanksgiving break. The Lady Tigers scored the game's initial eight points, four by Antionette Riddle, and did slow down.
Williams transitioned a Frazier turnover into a field goal moments later to give the Lady Tigers (3-4) their largest lead of the night at 23-9.
"We had a good game plan and our coaches had us ready to play," said Riddle, who was one of four Lady Tigers in double digits with 15 points. "We were just sharing the ball, attacking the basket well and doing what we were taught to do."
Aushiana Ivy achieved her second straight double-double with 18 points and 12 boards. Allen was the high scorer for Northeast with 22 points while Mays included 11 to the cause.
Gadsden State had a plus-26 mark on the rebounding battle, including plus-14 on offensive boards that led to 14 second chance points.
Pressure on the Lady Cardinals turned into steals and 17 points off turnovers for the Lady Tigers. Riddle and Ivy had three apiece, while Kiki Gwyn stole two.
"They were focused and did what we asked," Northeast head coach Brian Alexander said of his squad. "We proved that we have what it takes to play. We're going to be all right."
The Lady Tigers and Tigers return to action in Booneville on Thursday with the start of Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division competition versus rival Itawamba Community College. Women's tipoff is slated for 5:30 p.m. with the men's contest to follow.