March 3, 2012 10:16:00 PM
CLINTON -- Tiffany Huddleston couldn't help but hold back a smile.
The junior guard typically shows little emotion on the soccer field or on the basketball court.
On this play, though, she knew something wasn't right.
On the soccer field, Huddleston would not have needed to get her feet under her to make a play. She would have used the touch she has with either foot and made the defense pay.
On the basketball court Saturday, Huddleston showed she's equally dangerous with both feet, even if it didn't feel or look right. In the process, Starkville Academy unveiled another weapon that helped cap the 2011-12 season in championship style.
Huddleston's layup off the wrong foot was part of a 10-point individual scoring burst in the fourth quarter that helped push the Starkville Academy girls basketball team to a 50-39 victory against Madison-Ridgeland Academy in the championship game of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Overall State Tournament at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi College.
"I was actually getting really excited," Huddleston said. "You might have even noticed I smiled a little bit. I didn't mean to (go off the wrong foot). I was afraid I was going to lose the ball when I was dribbling."
That turned out to the least of Starkville Academy's worries, as Huddleston and Sallie Kate Richardson each had 12 points and Anna Lea Little added 11 to help the Lady Volunteers (38-5) earn their third victory in the tournament, and their first overall state tournament title. Starkville Academy also won the Class AAA, Division II tournament title at Heritage Academy and the Class AAA crown at East Rankin Academy.
Huddleston helped provide a finishing kick that will go down with the best in state history. After Richardson scored on an offensive rebound putback to give Starkville Academy a 38-37 lead with 4 minutes, 50 seconds to play, Huddleston made sure the Lady Volunteers kept it. She scored on a drive on the next possession to set up her fancy footwork. Typically, players driving from the left wing go off their right foot and finish with their left hand. But Huddleston mixed up her steps and went off the wrong foot. She made up for the misstep with a nifty scoop shot that pushed the lead to five.
After the game, Huddleston couldn't remember if she started to smile as she was dribbling or as she went up for the shot. In the grand scheme of things it didn't matter. It only created speculation as to whether Huddleston felt more confident with both feet on the soccer field or both hands on the basketball court.
"I would say I am better at using both feet than both hands," Huddleston said.
Huddleston kept the surge going with a steal and a layup and an offensive rebound putback that kicked the Lady Volunteers' lead to 46-37 with 2:25 to go.
"The way we were playing defense, (Huddleston) had the freedom to go out and pick some passes off," Starkville Academy coach Glenn Schmidt said. "We weren't going to let No. 24 (Jessica Whitehead) get a 3-pointer off, and she is just all over her.
By then, thoughts of more smiles must have entered Huddleston's mind, but she stayed focused, hitting two free throws with 1:14 left that nearly sealed the deal. Little's two free throws with 51 seconds did just that and set off a final celebration in a magical season of basketball.
The final act epitomized a year in which the Lady Volunteers were best when they were the sum of their parts. On any given night, a new player could emerge to lead the way or to pick another player up who was having an off night. No one had a "bad" day Saturday, but Schmidt said it was Huddleston's turn to take center stage and to be the difference-maker.
"That's what a winner does," Schmidt said. "A winner isn't thinking about what they have to do, they just react and they know it is time. She is a great athlete, a champion, a competitor. It was just her time. She just knew it."
Following a round of pictures with the championship trophy, Huddleston remained equally composed as teammates danced beside her and tried to distract her. She flashed a few grins but stayed poised as she talked about how she took the game over to help Starkville Academy make history.
"I was just trying to get a spark going because I didn't think a one-point lead was good enough," Huddleston said. "I just took it upon myself. Once the baskets started falling and getting a steal here and there, I felt like that added a lot to it."
Starkville Academy cruised through the Class AAA, Division II tournament and then had to rally from double-digit deficits against Jackson Academy and MRA to win the Class AAA state tournament. It kept that trend up in the first round of the overall state, falling behind by double digits to Class AA Bowling Green (La.) Academy on Wednesday before pulling away for a 45-35 victory. Starkville Academy started quickly Friday en route to a victory against Jackson Prep and kept that momentum going Saturday.
Huddleston, Little (seven rebounds), Richardson (eight rebounds, six assists), and Nora Kathryn Carroll (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocked shots) represented Starkville Academy on the 10-player all-tournament team. All four players will be back next season to try to help Starkville Academy repeat its triple-threat title.
Anna Prestridge, one of five Starkville Academy seniors who played their final game with the team, played with Huddleston two seasons and said Huddleston usually is stoic on the court, so it might have been a little surprising for her to see her teammate break out with a little smile in the fourth quarter. She said it wasn't surprising to see Huddleston take the lead and push the team to another title.
"Tiff is so quick that it is nothing for her to seal the ball from somebody and go lay it up on the other end," Prestridge said. "She is really good at that, and that's just what she did. It helped us out a lot."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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