TUPELO — Cameron Mann fidgeted on the bench for the entire first half of Tupelo’s Class B regional elimination game with Moss Thursday afternoon, serving a mini-suspension for punching a wall in the visitors’ dressing room at Calvin after the Tigers lost to Pittsburg in last weekend’s district tournament — and thinking more about just playing than about being any kind of hero.

“It was killing me sitting on the bench,” Mann said after he scored 13 second-half points and and hit the game-winning basket with three seconds left as Tupelo (18-9) rallied to win a thriller, 45-43.

With the victory, the Tigers advanced to another must-win contest at 3 p.m. today at Eastern Junior College in Wilburton against 8-17 Battiest. Moss, meanwhile, finished a breakout first season under ECU graduate Brett Thomas at 17-10 after winning just five games last season.

Mann scored eight of his team’s 17 third-quarter points as Tupelo came all the way back from an 11-point first-half hole to tie the score at 31-all heading to the final period, and the Tigers led for virtually all of the fourth quarter after taking their first lead of the game on Mann’s free throw with 7:47 to play.

Tupelo was still in front 43-40 after Randy McCurry sank the second of two free throws with 28 seconds left, but the Pirates’ Brian Larney, who scored a team-high 18 points despite sitting out almost half of the second quarter with a sprained ankle, drained a 3-pointer from the corner to tie the score with 21.5 seconds remaining. Tupelo coach Clay Weller called time out with 11 seconds showing on the clock to set up a final play.

“It was the same play we ran last year against Stringtown,” Weller said, referring to a play that resulted in Mann’s last-second game-winner to beat the fourth-ranked Tigers in last season’s area semifinals. “But that play was designed to go to Daniel (Ingram). This time, it went to the right guy.”

Mann took a pass on the right baseline, drove toward the basket, turned his back as the Moss defense moved to head him off, then banked a soft turnaround jumper off glass for the game winner with three seconds left.

“It reminded me of Stringtown,” Mann said, echoing Weller’s recollection of the biggest basketball victory for the Tiger basketball program since Tupelo won a state championship 13 seasons earlier.

Thursday’s victory wasn’t of the magnitude of the Stringtown win, but it kept the Tigers alive to continue down the road to what Weller and his club hope will be a second straight area tournament appearance. A victory today will set up a likely showdown Saturday with 17-9 Eagletown to decide the second area qualifier out of Tupelo’s region.

Although Mann and guard Randy McCurry (who scored a game-high 20 points) provided the offensive spark, Tupelo won Thursday with a defense that — even with Mann on the bench — held Moss scoreless for the final 6:37 of the first half and limited the Pirates to just 15-of-46 shooting (32 percent) for the game.

“As far as team defense, this was probably as good as we’ve played all year,” Weller said.

But as solid as the Tigers were on defense all night, they were their own worst enemy at times when they had the ball. Tupelo committed 15 turnovers, including nine in a first half that saw Moss build a 20-9 lead, but the Pirates went 0-for-8 from the field after Larney’s 3-pointer gave them their 11-point bulge, and, although the Tigers managed just one field goal (a 3-pointer by McCurry with 2:58 left) the rest of the way, they kept the score manageable until Mann entered the game.

Moss scored the first five points of the second half on a jumper by Corey George (who finished with 13 points) and Larney’s second 3-pointer of the night to build the lead back to 11 with 6:30 left in the third quarter, then Mann drove the baseline for a layup, an offensive rebound by Casey McCollum led to two McCurry free throws, and Jason Wyszynski hit a layup off a McCollum assist in a 6-0 Tupelo run over the next 70 seconds.

Mann’s 3-point play trimmed the Moss lead to 27-24 at the 3:29 mark, a jumper by William Boaz made it 27-26 39 seconds later, and the Tigers finally tied it for the first time on a Mann free throw with two minutes left in the period.

After Wyszynski’s turnaround jumper with three seconds left in the third quarter tied the game heading to the fourth, Mann and Wyszynski hit free throws to put the Tigers up by two, then George’s 3-point play with 6:08 left gave the Pirates their final lead of the night. Tupelo led on five separate occasions before Mann’s game-winning shot, as he and McCurry combined to score 13 of the Tigers’ final 14 points.

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