By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – The Cherokee County Lady Warriors were faced with a gut check against Jacksonville in the fourth quarter of the Class 4A, Area 10 girls basketball championship game on Tuesday.
The Lady Golden Eagles had once trailed by as many as 18 points but managed to make a game of it, trailing by seven in the early stages of the fourth quarter.
From that point on, the Lady Warriors bounced back. They went on a 16-9 run to take a 61-47 win.
So what was it that pushed the Lady Warriors over the edge and on to victory?
“I think the thought of having to travel to play (in Friday’s sub-regional). We hate traveling,” Lady Warrior senior point guard Mary Hayes Johnson said. “Half of our team has to take the ACT. We’re not driving two hours before we have to take the ACT. It was just all fight right there. Everybody just had each other’s back.”
Johnson certainly had her teammates’ backs. The tournament’s Most Valuable Player scored a game-high 26 points, including eight in the fourth quarter.
“She’s our MVP every game. She’s the heart and soul of our team,” Lady Warrior coach Richard Barton said. “She plays harder than anybody. Even when she’s tired and they’re going after her full speed on both ends, she’s playing hard on defense. They’re doubling her on offense, and she still manages to pull out 26 (points). She’s a player.”
Johnson said Jacksonville proved to be tough to handle because “they’re quick too.”
“They would try to trap me up top so I had to dribble around,” she said. “They worked our press pretty good. They figured out how to get through it. (On defense) I just got my hand on the ball a few times and that helped. The transition (game) is just how we play. It all come natural toward the end.”
“We were really winded at the end of the first half, but they dug in deep and pulled it out,” Barton added. “I’m very proud of them.
“We caused a lot of turnovers but we also gave a lot back to them. We just knew if we could limit that then we were going to be the better team and come out on top.”
In the early stages of the game, it looked as if the Lady Warriors (25-4) would win easily. They built a 19-3 first quarter advantage behind Johnson, who scored 12 points in the quarter.
But just when it appeared as if the game might turn into a rout, Jacksonville proved it wasn’t going to be that easy to shake by giving the Lady Warriors a dose of their own medicine in the transition game.
The Lady Golden Eagles managed to make the score respectable at halftime at 29-18 and 43-34 after three quarters before cutting the lead to single digits in the fourth.
“They just get after you,” Barton said. “They pressure the ball very, very hard. They do a really good job of that. If you don’t find that open person, find that open space then it’s tough. They pressure you hard without fouling. That’s a big deal.
“The last time over there we didn’t take care of it. It was hard for us to finish the game, but I think this time we stepped up a little bit and were able to hit the middle, push it out and run some transition. I think that helped a lot.”
Nevaeh Gaidurgis added 12 points for the Lady Warriors. Audrey Haygood had 11 and Ellisan Givens finished with five points. All three joined Johnson on the all-tournament team.
Neveah Nicholson led Jacksonville with 17 points, including three 3-pointers. Alexis Phillips tossed in 15 points, including three treys. Deasia Prothro finished with six points.
Both teams advance to sub-regional play on Friday at 6 p.m. The Lady Warriors host Area 14 runner-up Madison County. Jacksonville travels to Area 14 winner New Hope. New Hope defeated Madison County 45-42 in the Area 14 tournament championship game.
“They’re (Madison County) a bigger team, a little more physical. It’s going to be a little different type of game than this one for sure,” Barton said.
“We’ve heard they’re a pretty good team. It’s going to be tough,” Johnson said. “We’ve hosted the past two years. It hasn’t ended that great for us, but that’s just lit a fire under our butts. We’re ready to go this time.”