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Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn of Greenwood (Suresh Chawla)

By Robert Wilson

       Brookhaven Academy girls basketball coach Ron Kessler knew the assignment was difficult.

       He and his Lady Cougars had to come into Pillow Academy’s newly renovated gym, home of the one of the winningest girls basketball programs in Mississippi history, and face a talented and physical team coached by the third winningest active girls basketball coach in the country.

       Brookhaven passed the test with a 59-49 victory over Pillow Friday afternoon in the MAIS Class 5A state semifinals in Greenwood.

       Brookhaven improved to 38-3 and meets two-time defending state champion Leake Academy, 34-5 and 46-39 winner over Simpson in the other semifinal, Saturday at 2:15 p.m. for the state championship at Pillow. The two teams haven’t played each other this season. Both teams advance to next week’s Overall Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton. Pillow dropped to 25-7 and plays Simpson Academy, 31-5, Saturday at 1 p.m. for third place at Pillow. The winner advances to the Overall Tournament. The loser finished its season.

       Kessler had a great performance from his two 6-foot Mississippi College signees – twins Lillie and Emma Gates – to get the win Friday. Lillie had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocked shots and Emma had 10 points and 7 rebounds. Brookhaven also had sophomore Ella Smith with 12 points.

       Brookhaven led 30-22 at halftime and 42-28 after three quarters.

       “Handling the amazing atmosphere in Pillow’s gym was a huge part to our win today,” Kessler said. “Staying focused out there for 32 minutes was something we stressed to our team. Pillow is a very tough and physical opponent, and our girls matched that intensity from start to finish. Handling their full court pressure was the main thing we worked on in preparation for this game. We were far from perfect in that category but much improved from our opening round win over Heritage. It was a very physical game and when our girls went to the foul line we stepped up and hit many big free throws throughout the game, going 15 of 18 (83.3 percent), including 6 of 6 in the fourth quarter. I am so proud of how our girls defended this afternoon.”

Brookhaven’s win kept Pillow coach Durwin Carpenter – the third winningest active girls basketball coach in the country – from adding to his win total. He has won 1,153 games in his 49-year career, 796 games in 29 years at Pillow and won 10 MAIS state titles and four MAIS Overall Tournament crowns. Not only has Carpenter been very successful but even before he got to Greenwood almost three decades, Pillow girls basketball had been a force in Mississippi. Pillow holds the Mississippi record for longest winning streak with 100 consecutive victories from 1971-74.

       “Brookhaven has a very good team,” Carpenter said. “We had a hard time finishing on offense, especially at the free throw line.”

       Pillow was led by junior guard Avery Howard with 17 points, 5 steals, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Senior Karle Aldridge had 14 points.