Choctaw Central fans

Choctaw Central fans fill the Mississippi Coliseum to watch the Lady Warriors. Choctaw Central has become a staple of the MHSAA state tournament in Jackson.

State championship basketball games will no longer be played at the “Big House.”

The Mississippi High School Activities Association announced this week that state finals for boys and girls basketball will now be played at either Ole Miss in Oxford or Mississippi State in Starkville, instead of the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. 

Also new this season, quarterfinals will be played at neutral sites. Itawamba Community College in Fulton and Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena will be the north locations, and Pearl River Community College in Poplarville and the Biloxi Coliseum with be the south locations. 

The first and second rounds will still be played at the higher-seeded schools, and the semifinals will still take place at the Mississippi Coliseum. 

“To me, I kind of like it,” said Lewis Lightsey, head coach of the Northeast Lauderdale boys and girls teams. “Getting into the different parts of the state will be exciting, and kids getting to play on those big college courts will be exciting for them, win or lose.”

Lightsey’s boys team lost in the first round of the tournament in February. His girls team lost by four points in overtime to host Lanier in the quarterfinals. 

It’s in that round of the tournament that Lightsey said the change in location could be beneficial. 

“It’ll probably end up being a bigger deal for a lot of our schools than with the championship because with that (quarterfinal) round being between two pretty even teams, a neutral floor could make a difference.” 

After attending a recent basketball clinic with other coaches, Lightsey said the majority of them like the change. 

“Most of the coaches are for it and excited about it,” he said. “There’s a few coaches that hate to see it come away from the Coliseum because of the history of making it to Jackson. But I think for the most part, coaches are excited about it.”

Ron Norman

Ron Norman

Bill Smith is one of the coaches who liked the way it was. The Choctaw Central girls head coach, who reached the 3A semifinals last season, said he wasn’t sure he approved of the MHSAA moving the championship games away from Jackson.

“That’s the way it’s always been,” Smith said. “They split it up and started going to Jackson State for some of it, and in years past, everything was always there for two weeks, and that’s what people looked forward to. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to (Mississippi) State or Ole Miss, but it’s breaking up tradition.”

Smith also pointed to the increased distance many teams will have to travel for state championship games. The drive from Choctaw to Ole Miss takes around an hour longer than to Jackson, and the trip from Lauderdale County schools takes around three hours, twice as long as it takes to get to Jackson. Mississippi State would take around the same amount of time for both. 

“If a coastal team has to drive all the way to Oxford, they’ll have to stay there for three days,” Smith said. “I haven’t seen the reasoning for the changes, but I’m sure it’s financial. Everyone always talks about going to the Big House, and to decide to up and change everything, it caught me off guard.” 

Lightsey said even with the longer trips, he still expects a crowd at the games. 

“With the excitement of that time of year, the fans get behind the team and they’ll still support them,” he said. 

Ron Norman, head coach of the Meridian boys team that lost in the 6A title game last season, said he enjoyed the previous way, but is looking at a different objective. 

“I’m an old school coach, which means Jackson was the goal every year,” Norman said. “But it doesn’t matter where they host the state championship, I just hope Meridian is there.

“It could be on the coast, it could be at Ole Miss, Mississippi State. It could be in Southaven. Teams just want to be there.”

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