By R. Alan Richardson
Coach Timothy Roop went into Monday night’s Region Championship basketball contest with high hopes his girls could pull off the upset over Jefferson’s Lady Dragons. Those hopes were dashed as Jefferson held on for the trophy to keep their unblemished Region record alive. They defeated Morgan 55-37 behind some tenacious defense, aggressive drives, and outside shooting that proved a little too much for Morgan in the second half.
Going into the game, Roop felt confident that he had a game plan in place that would give his team a fighting chance. He said, “The saying is you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Our saying will be you slay a Dragon eight minutes at a time. We have a plan. We have seen it work. We just have to execute it for four quarters.” Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work out as well in the third quarter. After clinging to a seven-point 24-17 deficit at halftime, the squad couldn’t hold up to the Dragons’ second half play.
Jefferson came into the Championship sporting a 23-4 record, a number two AAA ranking, and a perfect 13-0 Region record (including the first round of the tournament). The weird weather this past week not only caused Thursday’s semifinal action to be moved to Friday, but also the Saturday finals to be pushed back to Monday. Despite those delays it was a packed house on Friday and Monday for the Final Four matchups.
Friday’s matchup with Hart County was a probable toss-up. The two teams had split during the regular season and were now playing on a neutral court at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs that hosted the Final Four. Shaw Athletic Center is a nice venue for the tournament.
The first quarter saw the Lady Dogs jump out on top 12-5. The team play of Morgan resulted in some nifty assists, easy layups, and steals out of their pressure defense that put Hart on their heels. The turnovers by Hart proved a major problem for them.
The Hartwell-based Bulldogs scored on the first bucket of the game, a three-pointer with 7:15 to play. Morgan then scored eight straight on two assists from Taylor Wilson, an offensive rebound and putback by Neshay Cobb, a steal and layup from Shay Brown, and two buckets by Tamia Benford.
The seven-point first quarter lead evaporated quickly in the second when Morgan went on a six minute drought without a point. Hart battled back to tie things up at 12 apiece with 5:25 remaining before the half. The Lady Dogs finally tallied on a driving layup from Benford at the 3:00 mark to regain the lead at 17-14. It was a lead they would never relinquish. It was a game of runs as Morgan’s defense held Hart scoreless for a 20-12 halftime advantage.
It wasn’t easy. Hart County hit a shot at the buzzer to end the third quarter with the score 31-29. Morgan gained a scant 37-35 lead with 4:10 left on the clock and Roop went to his spread handoff game putting the outcome in the hands of his three best players. They didn’t let him down.
Kourtney Elder hit both ends of a one-and-one with 1:16 remaining to give the Dogs a six point cushion at 39-35. It was all they needed for the win. Even though they missed their final four charity shots down the stretch, so did Hart. The final points of the game came with 41.5 seconds on an inside shot by Hart and it ended in a two-point win for the Lady Dogs 39-37. It was a barn burner.
Roop commented about the win, “The officiating was rough in the second half for sure but that uneven count actually came back to help us. I was extremely proud of how well we handled things late in the game. I went to a dribble handoff and told the girls only attack when it’s wide open. We started that with 4:54 to go and a two point lead. We were probably able to run a good three minutes off of the clock. Those girls two months ago would have folded and lost that game. But, like I mentioned before, these girls are 100% bought in and locked in. We missed some free throws that hurt us but we ended with the win and that is the important part! Our goal going into the season was playing for the Region Championship. I told a few people that early and they thought I was kidding or gave the that’s what everyone says talk. We believed 100% that we could and would do it. After the rough start and bouncing around a .500 record, I am sure people doubted us be we continued fighting and continued taking it on the chin against some of the best teams in the state. We met that first goal and now we are looking to tomorrow night for a chance to bring home the championship.”
The semifinals victory put Morgan in the Championship game. It was a defensive battle between the two teams in the first quarter with Morgan trailing 9-8 after the first eight minutes with turnovers plaguing both squads. Things opened up some in the second period, missed free throws, and missed shots in the paint put Morgan behind at the break 24-17. Still very much in the game, the third quarter doomed all the Lady Dogs’ chances of getting the upset.
The full and half court pressure from Jefferson began to wear on the Dogs and that was all the crease the Lady Dragons needed. The lead swelled to 44-29 after three quarters. Roop’s Dragon slaying comment was correct, but that one quarter became too much to overcome. The fourth quarter was a draw and Jefferson was crowned the new Region Champion from 8-AAA.
After the game as Championship and Runner-up trophies were being awarded to the teams, the 8-AAA All-Region squad was announced. To no one’s surprise Benford, Brown, and Wilson were named to the All-Region team to recognize their outstanding play for 2019-20. Due to their second place finish, Morgan will now host Calhoun (number three seed from Region 6-AAA) on Friday, Feb. 13 at the Dog Pound. Times had not been determined as of this writing.