So many times this season, Byrd relied on clutch basketball to pull out close wins.
The No. 3 seed Yellow Jackets faced that situation again Friday, but a young No. 30 seed Ouachita displayed an unusual calm to win 76-73 on the road in the first round.
Down 74-73 after a D’Majia Richard bucket, Byrd’s Chad Lott drove the lane only to be blocked by Ouachita’s Kenny Ross.
Ouachita’s Cephus Gix sank two free throws to go up by three, and Lott’s 3-pointer clanged off the rim at the buzzer as the Lion’s maroon flooded Byrd’s court.
Gix, just a freshman, scored a game-high 30 points.
“We have just four players from the state championship runner-up team last season, and they didn’t play, and we lost Cam Sims (to Alabama football) at midterm,” said Ouachita coach Casey Jones. “We got Gix, who’s a freshman, in the second semester, and these kids just hung with me all season.
“What a good win against a great Byrd team, and these kids were just mentally tough and made big plays.”
Lott scored 22 points, and he will lead a core group of returners as just five Byrd seniors depart with David Holmes (10 points, four blocks) as the lone starter. Malek Waldon (11 points) was a key senior contributor.
“We knew Ouachita wasn’t a true 30 seed, and I guess it was just a law of averages,” said Byrd coach Rusty Johnson about losing a close game. Byrd fell to 10-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime.
“Chad is a winner, and he played a great game. We had a one-point lead with 20 seconds, and we had the turnover there and then couldn’t make enough plays.
Two Lott free throws put Byrd ahead 56-50 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Ouachita stormed back with five consecutive Richard points.
A Ross drive tied the game at 60-60 with five minutes left, and Ouachita led by as many as four points (68-64) with three minutes left.
“We just we knew needed it,” said Ross, who is in his first year at Ouachita after transferring from West Monroe. “This is a big win, and I just told the team that I didn’t wanna go home.
“We want to go all the way.”
Byrd charged back with three straight points from Kory Ashley (team-high 23 points), but two more Ross free throws kept Ouachita ahead 70-67.
Down 72-69, Byrd took the lead (73-72) with four consecutive free throws with 41 seconds left, and the Jackets had a chance to increase that lead when Holmes drew a charge.
But Ouachita’s pressure forced a turnover, and Richard’s bucket gave the Lions’ a 74-73 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“It was a combination of things – we missed some free throws and they shot theirs well,” Johnson said. “It was a physical game, and the more physical it got as the game wore on, it didn’t benefit us.”
Byrd looked like it would keep its distance in the second quarter as Lott and Ashley combined for nine points of an 11-3 run to lead 35-25. Ouachita responded with a 10-2 run led by eight Gix points to trail just 37-35 at halftime.
The Yellow Jackets led the majority of the third quarter, including 54-48 with 40 seconds left after a 12-5 spurt.
The first-round playoff loss ended Byrd’s best regular season in 17 years.
Byrd’s 27-6 record is the most wins since 2000-01 in Chad McDowell’s final year, and the Jackets’ share of the District 1-5A title is the first since 1996-97, the last year under Delbert Clinton.
“If you look at this young team that had just one starter coming back, I think the season was a success even though we hated to lose in the first round,” Johnson said. “This will make them more hungry the next year.”
Ouachita will travel to No. 19 Thibodaux, who upset No. 14 Lafayette, on Tuesday in the second round.