The Kemper County boys basketball team proved why it’s the top seed heading into next week’s district tournament.

After playing most of the first half from behind, the Wildcats held strong on defense, got numerous steals and made buckets in transition to come away with a 69-56 win over host Southeast Lauderdale in their Region 5-3A, regular-season finale Friday night.

“They just started listening to what I was telling them and understanding the concept of basketball a little,” Wildcats head coach Micheal Johnson said. “When you play good defense, you’ll get easy baskets, and that’s what happened. 

James Granger scored a game-high 20 points for Kemper County (20-6, 10-0) and had five steals and two blocks. Jamar Grace added 14 points, and Deonte Rush chipped in eight points and eight rebounds.

Demondre Graham led Southeast (15-9, 6-2) with 16 points, Travis Ruttley earned 16 points and Travis Moore added seven.

“They were tougher than us in the second half,” Tigers head coach Centel Truman said. “They came out, hit us in the mouth, and we didn’t respond well. That’s the difference between being a great team and a good team.”  

With the game tied 13-13 with 1:49 to play in the opening quarter, a 3-point play by Moore gave Southeast the lead, which it held onto through halftime. The Tigers led by as much as five and clung to a 31-30 advantage at intermission.

The Wildcats came out hot in the second half, with Grace draining a 3-pointer before Granger tallied seven points in a row to build a seven-point lead for Kemper County midway through the third period. Javion Williams’ 3-point play at the end of the quarter put Kemper County ahead by double digits.

Southeast was outscored 23-14 in the third quarter.

“I just tell my guys that we’ve got to be tough,” Johnson said. “Box out first, then go get the ball. Don’t worry about getting the rebound first.”

The Wildcats extended their margin to as much as 14 in the fourth quarter to close out the contest.  

“We’ve got to find ourselves, we’ve got to find our identity, we’ve got to find where our toughness is,” Truman said, with his squad heading into the district tournament at the No. 2 seed. “I’m very disappointed in my seniors. I thought my senior leadership is what is supposed to bring us through, and we didn’t bring that intensity in the second half.” 

Kemper County benefited from 20 steals in picking up its 13th-straight win to finish undefeated in district competition. The Wildcats will be the No. 1 seed in the 5-3A tournament next week.

“It’s hard to beat somebody twice, and we beat them twice this year. Now we’ve got to get ready for next week,” Johnson said. “We’ll just try to win that first game, and we’ll let it pan out. Let the chips fall where they’re going to fall.”

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