February 27, 2013 9:34:05 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSON -- Tiffany Huddleston felt weird.
Usually, the Starkville Academy standout is a center of attention. On the soccer field, Huddleston has a knack for creating scoring opportunities or finishing chances. On the basketball court, Huddleston has had a steady hand in directing the Lady Volunteers' offense and typically gets a fair share of attention because she is a conduit the team uses to get its offense going.
But Huddleston felt all alone Saturday against Madison-Ridgeland Academy in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA State tournament at Jackson Academy. With so many scoring options to defend, MRA coach Stephen Force had to pick his poison and devise a game plan to slow down starters Nora Kathryn Carroll, Huddleston, Anna Lea Little, Maggie Proffitt, Sallie Kate Richardson.
Unfortunately, MRA didn't execute that strategy like Force designed and wound up leaving Huddleston open time after time at the top of the key for jump shots. Huddleston hit enough of those shots and used the space to get into the rhythm of the game to fuel Starkville Academy's 64-29 victory. She finished with 15 points, six assists, five rebounds, and four steals. Her performance earned her a spot on the all-tournament team with Little, Proffitt, and Richardson.
"It felt weird because I am not normally (left open)," Huddleston said. "I asked coach (Glenn Schmidt) at one point, 'What kind of offense are we were running?' She said, 'Just go to free-throw line and shoot it like you have been.' For some reason, they were giving me open shots, and I decided to take that to my advantage."
Huddleston likely won't be left that wide open this week when Starkville Academy (40-0) begins its quest to complete its second consecutive three-peat of titles. Starkville Academy, which was ranked No. 6 last week in The Clarion-Ledger's Super 10 prep basketball poll, will take on Prairie View Academy at 3 p.m. today at Mississippi College in Clinton. Prairie View Academy, the No. 3 seed from Class AA, defeated Mt. Salus Academy, the No. 3 seed from Class A, 68-51 on Tuesday. Prairie View Academy eliminated Oak Hill Academy on Saturday in the Class AA State tournament at Canton Academy.
Earlier this season, Starkville Academy became the first MAIS team in any sport to earn a spot in The Clarion-Ledger's Super 10 rankings, which recognize the top teams in all classifications and associations. Starkville Academy has won 49 straight games dating back to last season and the start of its run through the Class AAA, Division II tournament, the Class AAA tournament, and the overall state tournament. The Lady Volunteers overcame their share of double-digit deficits en route to their historic run. They followed a similar path Saturday, rallying from a 33-21 deficit early in the fourth quarter against MRA. Starkville Academy relied on a full-court press that created turnovers and allowed it to get out in transition and score quickly to turn the improbably comeback.
Huddleston was most effective in the fast-paced game. On Friday, Huddleston struggled with her shooting and with turnovers in a hard-fought victory against Presbyterian Christian. While the Lady Volunteers had to grind out everything they earned for that victory, they looked like they were back to their efficient ways against MRA, playing free and easy, passing and moving with and without the ball, and making life difficult for anyone in their way.
Schmidt joked after the game she didn't want to tell Huddleston she was wide open and that she wanted her to be aggressive against the defense. Like a goal scorer who has a defender on their heels, Huddleston sensed the opportunity and didn't hesitate to take her shots, even after experiencing such a frustrating afternoon one game earlier.
"(Presbyterian Christian) had constant pressure on most all of us," Huddleston said. "Not many people got shots against them. It was a huge contrast from that game. I would say so (that it was like playing on the playground). A lot of times (when you play on the playground), it is carefree and it is like, 'I am not going to guard this person.' For some reason, that is what it was like."
Huddleston sensed in the first quarter things were going to come a little easier for her and her teammates. She hopes the Lady Volunteers will be able to respond like they did against MRA three more times this season.
"Once the game started, we came out ready to play, ready to go," Huddleston said. "Early on, I knew if we kept it up it most likely would be in our favor."
The winner of today's game will take on the winner of today's Bowling Green-Tri-County game at 1 p.m. Friday. The semifinal winners will play at 1 p.m. Saturday for the championship.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.