By DANNY P. SMITH
For the last 14 years, Columbus boys basketball coach Sammy Smith provides an early Christmas present to area teams with an invite to play in the Joe Horne Christmas Invitational.
It's an opportunity for squads to get some final games in before the Christmas break and serves as a decent measuring stick going into division play.
From the Starkville Daily News coverage area, the Starkville High School boys and girls teams and the East Webster boys are scheduled to participate in the tournament.
"As we get ready to close out the first half of the season, you want to close this chapter on a high note," SHS girls coach Kristie Williams said. "You set the tone in the first half of the season and the second half you have to go finish out on top because that determines if you make it to the playoffs or not."
The Lady Jackets (3-6) take on Brandon at 3:30 p.m. today, then play Forest Hill at noon on Saturday.
Williams expects a tough matchup for both games, but especially against Brandon.
"Brandon by far is one of the better 6A teams I've seen in terms of watching them play other teams," Williams said. "They just recently played Meridian and it was a close game and Brandon won. They are scrappy and play hard. It's going to be a situation where you'll have to play 32 minutes of hard basketball if we want to have a chance to win."
The Starkville boys (8-1) also play Brandon (8 p.m. Saturday), but only after meeting a traditionally strong Jackson Provine squad (7 p.m. today) under coach Luther Riley.
"Provine is good, real good," SHS boys coach Greg Carter said. "Coach Riley does a real good job with them. He's won a bunch of state championships playing that way. They seem to do a good job of carrying over from year to year.
"They're going to be real detailed in what they do. They won't play too fast, but they will play fast. They are going to execute their sets; they are a pretty good defensive team and are going to rebound."
Carter calls Brandon (11-1) "probably the biggest team in the state," and it's easy to see why with players like 6-foot-9 Tyler Adams and 6-foot-7 Trey Brown on the roster.
"It's going to be a challenge both days for us," Carter said.
The Jackets opened last year's tournament in Columbus by defeating Tuscaloosa Central easily 80-36, and ended up winning a 81-79 thriller to cap the event on Saturday night.
"We had a lot of fun over there last year. Of course it's always fun when you are winning," Carter said.
Carter likes the way his team is progressing during the early season, but said it still has a long way to go.
"We're getting better," Carter said. "We were a little shaky early on, especially when we played Meridian, but we've grown up a little bit. That doesn't mean we are where we need to be yet, but we are still getting better. Hopefully around the middle of January or so we'll be hitting our stride."
East Webster coach Corey Stidham, a former assistant under Carter at SHS, remembers fondly the times he spent at the Joe Horne Invitational. He takes the Wolverines there Saturday to play Midfield (Ala.) at 12:40 p.m.
The action completes a busy week for East Webster after playing Eupora in Memphis Monday, traveling to Houlka Thursday and hosting Weir tonight.
After not playing many games in November because of football, Stidham said the Wolverines have been catching up the last couple of weeks. He said the event in Columbus helps in that regard.
"It's always a good little tournament with quality teams coming in there," Stidham said. "I thought it was a good opportunity to pick up another game and give us some good competition to get us ready for district."