Kaeden Laws

Kaeden Laws of Center Hill fires from the free throw line for one of his game-high 16 points, including a buzzer-beating three-point shot that gave the Mustangs a 49-48 victory and the 5A district championship at Northwest Mississippi Community College.  

One thing has become certain regarding a sizzling crosstown boys' basketball rivalry that is Center Hill-Olive Branch: be sure to expect the unexpected.

Such was the case again Friday night at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia during the MHSAA 5A district championship game.

A shot from the left side by Joe Cooper of Olive Branch with just seconds left appeared to finish off another Mustangs' attempt at winning its first-ever game in school history against the Conquistadors.

That's when Center Hill's Kaeden Laws said, "Hold my popcorn."

Following the Cooper basket, Center Hill quickly got the ball upcourt to coach Newton Mealer, who called timeout with three-tenths of a second left.

Off the timeout, the Mustangs inbounded the ball to Laws, who was standing in three-point territory on the right side near his bench. Laws caught the pass, turned and fired a dart that swished through the basket and with it gave Center Hill a 49-48 victory and the district championship, along with a first-round bye and a home game in the second round of the MHSAA 5A state playoffs next week.

There was one problem with the shot, however. Since it came with three-tenths of a second remaining, the basket should not have counted. By rule, the only shot that legally counts in that situation would be a tip-in off the inbounds pass.

But the officials did not make the correct call and left the floor with Center Hill players and fans rejoicing and Olive Branch players and fans in complete shock.

Mealer's initial comment about the game after the victory reflected that both teams struggled with questionable calls and non-calls against both teams during the course of the game.

"We fought a lot of adversity," Mealer said. "Officiating, we got behind and were down nine in the fourth quarter. But we told our kids, 'How do you want to leave your legacy? This could be the last time we play them. We're not guaranteed a fourth time. Is your team going to be the team that never beat them or is your legacy going to be the team that not only was the best team in school history and knocked down the team we feel is the best team they've ever had?' I respect them (Olive Branch), but our kids never quit."

Mealer, in fact, suffered the wrath of the officials when he was tagged for a technical foul earlier in the game for leaving the coach's box. He spent much of the remainder of the game sitting in his spot alongside his assistants.  

Laws finished with 16 points for the Mustangs, who now wait until Saturday, Feb. 23 to face either Ridgeland or Neshoba Central in the second round.

Calvin Temple added 15 points for Center Hill, while D.J. Jeffries led the defending state 5A champions with 14.

Olive Branch next hosts West Point in the first round Tuesday on the Quistors home floor with the winner traveling to Holmes County Central for their next round game Saturday.

When contacted about the final sequence, Rickey Neaves with the MHSAA responded that while several videos were posted about the last play, video review can't change an official's ruling.

"We can not use video to review calls or rules violations per the NFHS (National Federation of High School Associations) rule book. I have contacted the officials and talked to them and also with the assigner who was present at the game," Neaves wrote by email reply. "The call was appealed by Olive Branch and handled per our handbook. The results of the game will stand as called."

With Olive Branch returning to 6A next year, this could be the last time the teams play each other for awhile, with one exception: a possible state championship game this year at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson next month.

While the Hill was celebrating a boys' district title, Olive Branch's girls basketball program savored a return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus due to a program suspension by the MHSAA.

Coach Jason Thompson's Lady Quistors claimed a 78-32 district final win over Center Hill in the first game of the doubleheader on the Howard Coliseum floor Friday night.

Endya Buford again led the way for Olive Branch with 29 points while Lauren Leasure paced Center Hill with seven.

Olive Branch had to sit out last year's 5A postseason when it was ruled an ineligible player was on the playoff roster two years ago, a ruling that also cost the Lady Quistors a state 6A crown after an apparent come-from-behind victory against Starkville. That player has since transferred to Southaven.

"That was one of the goals we set for us," Thompson said about winning the championship. "Now that we've accomplished that, we can be proud of it, celebrate and enjoy it tonight, but then step up and get ready to do the next challenge, which is to win the next game on the road we really want to go on and that is to get to Jackson."

Olive Branch Friday will host the winner of Monday's Holmes County Central-Ridgeland first round game. Center Hill, despite the loss, hosts Saltillo Monday in a first-round game with the winner playing Friday at Neshoba Central.

Here are the first round pairings involving DeSoto County schools for girls on Monday and boys on Tuesday.

Class 6A Boys: Columbus at Southaven and Horn Lake at Oxford. Class 5A Boys: West Point at Olive Branch and Lake Cormorant at Grenada.

Class 6A Girls: South Panola at Horn Lake and Southaven at Columbus. Class 5A Girls: Saltillo at Center Hill and Lake Cormorant at West Point.

Bob Bakken is Sports Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.