Lady Warriors stun Handley, advance to 4A Northeast Regional final

Cherokee County High School’s Mary Hayes Johnson sinks a free throw with 7.2 seconds remaining against Handley in the Class 4A girls Northeast Regional semifinals on Monday morning. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

JACKSONVILLE – Cherokee County High School senior point guard Mary Hayes Johnson admitted she was nervous.

And exhausted.

With 7.2 seconds remaining in a tie Class 4A Northeast Regional semifinal game against Handley, Johnson had missed the first of two free throws after she was fouled. Following a timeout by Lady Warrior coach Richard Barton, Johnson’s nerves were settled. She went back out to the line and sank her second shot, giving the Lady Warriors a 1-point lead.

Only one defensive stop was all that separated Cherokee County from its first regional final appearance since 2013.

With time ticking down, Handley drove the length of the floor. Takeriauna Mosley’s layup at the buzzer rimmed out as the horn sounded, allowing the Lady Warriors to overcome a 13-point third quarter deficit and escape with a 49-48 victory.

Cherokee County will play in the regional final at 9 a.m. on Thursday against Anniston. Anniston defeated New Hope by the final of 44-40 in the other regional semifinal on Monday.

“We came into a timeout there in the third and she was like ‘I can’t do full-court man. I can’t do this.’ But she did it,” Barton said of Johnson. “She’s a go getter. She’s the heart of our team. She gives 100 percent no matter what she’s doing.”

Johnson led the Lady Warriors with 25 points, including three 3-pointers. She also had six rebounds, four steals and an assist.

But none of Johnson’s points were bigger than her final free throw.

“It scared me after that first one,” Johnson said. “He (Barton) called that time out and it gave me a second to calm down. Everyone, the looks on their faces, it was for the team right there. (The second shot) was tough but it was good. It felt good coming out of my hand.”

Following the free throw, Johnson then had the presence of mind to get back on defense and defend on Mosley’s final layup attempt.

“She got that shot off and my heart sunk for a second,” Johnson said. “It was a rush really. I was trying not to foul. It didn’t even register in my head that we had won. It took me a second. I just remember me and Audrey (Haygood) taking off running after him (Barton).”

Speaking of Haygood, she also had a huge 3-pointer that gave the Lady Warriors (27-4) a 48-47 lead with 42.6 seconds remaining. It was their first lead since early in the first quarter.

Haygood finished with six points on a pair of 3-pointers.

“I knew it was going in right when I shot it,” Haygood said. “He’s (Barton) been telling me to shoot. If I think I’m open, shoot. I was like ‘I’m going to do it.’”

Prior to Haygood’s second trey, Ellisan Givens also sank a big jump shot to tie the game at 45 with 1:14 to go.

Momentum had completely shifted to the Lady Warriors by the time Haygood’s jumper went down. Cherokee County ended the game by outscoring Handley 20-8 in the fourth quarter.

“I was just praying. I was like ‘Please go in,’” said Givens, who had seven points. “When I hit it, I was just going crazy. It wasn’t as hard as a three, but it meant a lot to the game.”

“The shots weren’t falling, then all of a sudden they all started falling,” Barton said. “They jumped into a little match-up zone, which we knew they liked to use. We practiced against that and they just kept leaving the corner open. We kept taking it.”

Handley (24-9) led 15-10 at the end of the first quarter and held a 25-22 edge at halftime. The Lady Tigers extended their lead to 40-29 at the end of the third quarter before Cherokee County rallied.

“At halftime we were right where we wanted to be,” Barton said. “We’ve had plenty of games like that where it’s a three- or four-point game and the second half we just pull away with it. I just told them you took their best punch there. Just go out and play our game and finish and we’re going to be all right.

“I’m very, very proud of these girls. I think we were down 12 at one point right there and they battled. I don’t know what more I can say. They dug deep right there.”

Nevaeh Gaidurgis added six points and six rebounds for Cherokee County. Deannia Starr blocked five shots, had three steals, three points, three rebounds and two assists.

Mosley led Handley with 18 points, four assists and three rebounds. Takeria Tucker tallied 12 points and 10 boards. Za’Nautika Smith had seven points and 10 rebounds. Akia Brown added six points and four boards. Kristiana Tucker finished with five points, four rebounds and two steals.

“Tough way to lose, but unfortunately things don’t always go your way. That’s life,” Handley coach Courtney Screws said. “Obviously they hit a lot of big shots. Big free throw by No. 2 (Johnson) at the end. We had a chance at the basket, but sometimes you don’t have another answer other than Cherokee County is supposed to win the ball game. We were not.

“Today hurts but I couldn’t ask any more out of these kids.”

Cherokee County High School’s Ellisan Givens shoots a jumper between a pair of Handley defenders during their Class 4A Northeast Regional semifinal game in Jacksonville on Monday morning. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
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