By John Dell
JOURNAL REPORTER, Winston-Salem Journal
Winston-Salem State's defense, resembling a tourniquet attached to a fresh wound, was in full force last night in the South Atlantic Regional semifinals.
And it was Augusta State that felt the full brunt.
The Rams used an early second-half barrage and turned to an old friend called defense to bury the Jaguars 65-48 at Brayboy Gym on the campus of Johnson C. Smith. The Rams will play the winner of last night's other semifinal between Johnson C. Smith and Wingate tonight at 7:30 in the South Atlantic Regional final.
Shaking off a sluggish showing in the CIAA Tournament last week, the Rams went to work late in the first half to break open a close game. A 9-0 run to end the half was the spark the Rams have been looking for in recent games.
"Our defense was suffocating," Coach Rick Duckett of WSSU said last night after winning his 150th career game. "We really took some things away from them and one thing that I liked was it was against bigger people."
The Jaguars, which start two 6-10 players and another one who is 6-9, were no match for the Rams' full-court pressure. Unable to solve the pressure, the Jaguars committed 23 turnovers and in the first half had nine turnovers off the pressure.
"Facing them is a lot like playing Arkansas and their 40-minutes of hell," Coach Garry Tuell of Augusta State said.
Offensively, the Rams had another balanced effort with Centellis Tucker scoring 11 points and Devonaire Deas came off the bench to add 10 points. Deas fed Kevin Henry for a layup with one second left before halftime to give the Rams a 32-23 lead.
The carnage continued in the second half as the Rams kept the defensive pressure on and went on a 17-7 run to end it.
Leading the defensive charge as usual was Marcus Best, who hounded the sharp-shooting Gary Boodnikoff into 3 of 11 shooting. And on the inside against 6-10 Festus Hawkins and 6-10 Russell Hinder, Duckett coaxed outstanding defensive play out of Corey Thompson and Tyrone Robeson.
"I kind of feel like I've been letting my teammates down here of late," said Best, who scored nine points, had seven rebounds and made three steals. "We just came out and played some good defense."
The Jaguars (21-10) cut the lead to 37-30 early in the second half, but unlike the last few games where the Rams had trouble putting opponents away, this time it was different.
When Tucker hit consecutive 3-pointers to end the 17-7 run, the Rams lead was 49-30 with 10:16 to play.
Tucker also had to run the offense late in the first half when point guard Rob Williams was on the bench in foul trouble. Tucker said the difference between last night and the CIAA Tournament, where the Rams lost in the semifinals to Fayetteville State, had to do with rest. Duckett gave the team more days off than usual since last Friday, and the Rams looked fresh.
"I felt pretty comfortable on those (3-pointers) and they were open looks so I just took them and made them," Tucker said.
The Rams never allowed the Jaguars to get closer than 14 points the rest of the way. With 2:20 to go, Chris Harriman hit a 3-pointer to cut the Rams lead to 59-45. But Williams hit two free throws and Deas got a breakaway dunk that ended any hopes of a comeback.
A night after having their second-highest scoring game of the year when they beat Catawba 96-84, the Jaguars had one of their lowest scoring games. They shot 44 percent from the field but only took 36 shots.
Tuell's Jaguars played the Rams twice last season and lost both times, averaging 25 turnovers. He said that it was obvious what caused last night's problems.
"We played around them instead of putting pressure back on them," Tuell said. "You have to fight pressure with pressure and we didn't do that."
The Rams will have to quickly turn their attention to tonight's regional final. On the line is a trip to the Elite Eight in Bakersfield Calif., which starts March 21. The Rams and Duckett reached the regional final two years ago but lost to Lander.