The Lady Wildcats have been having shooting practice at the Powe Dome from 7:20-7:45 a.m. The team has been practicing on three goals put up in the Powe Dome. One of the goals that Cleveland currently shoots on has significant meaning for McCullough.
“I went home to my parents’ home in Tallahatchie County and got the rim that I shot on when I was in high school,” McCullough, a graduate of Strider Academy in Charleston, said. “At the end of the season, we take the rims down and then we put them back up in August every year when we get ready to start. We started shooting free throws before school around the first of November when we started playing our games.”
The practice for Cleveland (15-12) has paid off as the team, according to Maxpreps.com, is ranked first in 4A in free throws made (337), second in three-pointers per game (4.6), second in 3-pointers made (124) and seventh in points per game (53.7). Senior forward/guard Brittany Thigpen is currently shooting 71 percent from the free throw line and leads 4A in total free throws made with 125, while junior guard McKinnon Skeen is currently leading 4A in total three-point field goals (66). Skeen is currently scoring 11.6 points per game, while Thigpen is scoring 10.1 points per night. Skeen was also named Co-Player of the Year in Region 3-4A.
Cleveland’s free throw shooting has been at its best of the last five games as the team is 89-of-140 for a free throw percentage of .636. For the year, Cleveland is shooting 58 percent (337-of-581) from the charity stripe.
Last year, free throw shooting was a difference maker for the Lady Wildcats in their five postseason games, which were in the Region 3-4A Tournament and the North Half Tournament. In their three wins, the Lady Wildcats were 43-of-72 (60 percent) at the free throw line, while they were 23-of-51 (45.1 percent) in their two postseason losses.
The Lady Wildcats will begin their postseason run this year in the Region 3-4A Tournament in Greenwood tonight when they play Amanda Elzy at 7 p.m. at the Greenwood Civic Center. Cleveland will enter as a fourth seed, while Amanda Elzy will be a fifth seed.
According McCullough, the team must shoot free throws well in order to advance far in the playoffs.
“Lloyd Clark has always said free throw shooting is nothing but repetition and mental toughness,” McCullough said. “The more you shoot, the better you get at it. That’s really something we’ve concentrated on. I believe free throw shooting teams win ball games for you, especially when you get in the tournament. Really good free throw shooting teams will, I think, advance further in the tournament than those that don’t shoot free throws well.”
One part of Cleveland’s overall game that has been steady is its aggressiveness. Skeen (66-of-241, 3-point) and Chelsea Heffner (32-of-145, 3-point) are the team’s leading 3-point shooters and key in the team shooting a whopping 516 three-point shots in 27 games. With Cleveland leading 4A in rebounds per game (40 ppg.) and ranking second in total charges (22), the Lady Wildcats have been able to go to the free throw line an average of 21.5 times a night. Senior guard Antonique McGee (7.8 ppg., 4.6 rpg.), senior center Tonidra Blair (7.3 ppg., 7.5 rpg.), sophomore Lauren Ashley Collins (6.1 rpg.), freshman guard Taylor Collins (3.0 rpg.) and Thigpen (7 rpg.) have done a great job have done a great job getting the rebounds, while senior Maya Richard (4.7 ppg., 2.3 apg.) has done a solid job at point guard. Richard was also named All-Region 3-4A, along with Skeen.
“This is the best perimeter shooting team that I’ve coached here with Chelsea Heffner and McKinnon Skeen shooting from the perimeter like they do,” McCullough said. “That helps us because it makes these teams open up, because they have to defend them outside the 3-point line and that gives our slashers, Maya Richard, Antonique McGee, Brittany Thigpen and Taylor Collins, the opportunity to get to the rim. Brittany Thigpen does a really good job. She’s extremely physical, and gets to the rim and that’s how she gets to the free throw line so many times.”
Cleveland has been close in many of its game as eight of their 12 losses have been by nine points or less.
McCullough said the team is capable of and ready to make it to the 4A State Tournament in Jackson.
“I like our chances,” McCullough said. “Every coach is telling their players at this point now that our record is zero and zero because nobody cares what’s happened before now or how many wins you’ve got. There will be some really good teams with a lot of wins that are sitting at the house come Wednesday.
“All we’re interested in is survive and move on. That’s what you do at this point in the season. I think we’re as good as anybody. I think we’re the best team in our region, and I believe we’re as good as anybody in North Mississippi.”