March 3, 2012 11:45:00 PM
CLINTON -- Nora Kathryn Carroll saved her best for last.
In her first two games at the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools overall state tournament, the Starkville Academy junior guard had nine points and six rebounds.
Carroll knew she could do better, so she returned to A.E. Wood Coliseum with a different mind-set.
"I just felt like I had to be focused for this game because nobody at Starkville Academy has made it this far," Carroll said. "We just needed to be focused. It was our last game, so we had to go out there and give it our all."
Carroll had eight points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots Saturday to help lead the Starkville Academy girls basketball team to a 50-39 victory against Madison-Ridgeland Academy in the MAIS overall state tournament at Mississippi College.
Carroll wasn't the Lady Volunteers' leading scorer. Tiffany Huddleston and Sallie Kate Richardson shared that honor by scoring 12 points apiece. Anna Lea Little was right behind with 11. But Carroll's effort helped set the tone in the first quarter when she tracked down a loose ball for an offensive rebound. Later in the quarter, she hit a 3-pointer off an assist from Richardson that helped Starkville Academy build a 16-6 lead after eight minutes.
Starkville Academy's rebounding edge (31-26) wasn't significant. In fact, MRA (33-8) doubled up Starkville Academy in offensive rebounds (14-7). But the Lady Volunteers' offensive rebounds came at critical junctures. Carroll had an offensive rebound putback with 7 minutes, 44 seconds left in the game to give Starkville Academy a 34-33 lead. Richardson scored the team's next two baskets on offensive rebound putbacks. The second gave the Lady Volunteers the lead for good, 38-37, and set the stage for Huddleston to score the next 10 points in a row. That surge sent Starkville Academy to its third title of the season. The Lady Volunteers captured the Class AAA, Division II championship at Heritage Academy and won the Class AAA title at East Rankin Academy.
Carroll felt the team came out in the first quarter much like it did Friday against Jackson Prep. She felt confident the Lady Volunteers would come equally as fast against MRA, the team it beat to win the Class AAA crown, and respond after the Lady Patriots took the lead in the fourth quarter.
Carroll also knew she needed to take the advice of Starkville Academy coach Glenn Schmidt and play her role to the best of her ability.
"Coach Schmidt just told me I needed to attack the boards because rebounding is the key to the game," Carroll said. "I felt more comfortable in this game. Once I felt that shot (the 3-pointer) I felt really comfortable."
Carroll said rebounding and defense -- two aspects of the game that often aren't the most glorious -- turned the outcome in Starkville Academy's favor. The Lady Volunteers answered the call down the stretch, though, limiting the Lady Patriots to one field goal in the final five-plus minutes.
"We have worked really hard on (defense and rebounding) in practice," Carroll said. "It is amazing."
Senior Anna Prestridge shared Carroll's confidence that the team's fast start that would pay dividends at the end. Senior April Burney, who went 0-for-4 and was scoreless against Bowling Green (La.) Academy and Jackson Prep, hit two jump shots in the first quarter. Combined with Carroll's confident start, Prestridge, the team's point guard, knew she had more options to go to Saturday.
Starkville Academy needed all of those outlets, as well as all of the hustle plays and rebounds, to put itself in position to celebrate at the final horn.
"Coach told us to rebound because that was going to win the game for us, defensively and offensively, and to keep pushing and not to give up because we knew we could win this game, and we did," Prestridge said.
Schmidt took time after all of the pictures were taken and all of the hugs were handed out to reflect on all of the special players she has had though the years. She said Starkville Academy's effort this season was in part due to all of the players who had played at the school because they had worked hard to lay a foundation. She said all of the players were champions, and they received a fitting reward Saturday: another championship.
"They have never quit all year," Schmidt said. "They have been loose about it, they have not been uptight about it, and they have never quit. They have never played like, 'We have to win this game, we have to win this game.' They have just played, and they turned it up when they had to."
Schmidt has coached enough games, though to know that nothing is guaranteed. She reminded her players of that at halftime. Even though the Lady Volunteers withstood a second-quarter charge to take a 24-16 halftime lead, Schmidt knew her team was going to face another run. Haley Cox (game-high 18 points) and Anna Claire Henderson (10) led that charge, but Starkville Academy had too many weapons -- namely Huddleston -- and turned up the defense in the fourth quarter to secure the biggest trophy it has earned this season.
"I am really kind of speechless," Schmidt said. "Through the whole three weeks, it has been different people, and it could have been anybody. It was Tiff today who came in and got a few steals that we needed."
Carroll and Huddleston showed they were ready to seize the stage on one of the biggest afternoons of their high school careers. Fittingly, the team was able to capitalize with another championship effort.
"It is wonderful," Schmidt said. "I feel good because it is a reward for these kids' hard work. I have coached a lot of teams that deserve to be champion, so it is hard for me to say this is a special team, but it doesn't go without saying that this is a very special team. It means a lot to me to be at this place, at this time, by the grace of God, with these girls. I am the luckiest coach in the world."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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