February 23, 2013 11:15:21 PM
JACKSON -- "Here we go again."
Starkville Academy girls basketball coach Glenn Schmidt said the perfect words Friday afternoon after experiencing another Mississippi Association of Independent Schools roller-coaster playoff ride.
The Starkville Academy players showed they can withstand the twists and turns that come in just about any game and that they have the survive-and-advance thing down pat.
Maggie Proffitt hit two free throws with 41.4 seconds remaining, and Sallie Kate Richardson delivered the defensive play of the game to help Starkville Academy rally for a 40-37 victory against Presbyterian Christian in the semifinals of the MAIS Class AAA State tournament at Jackson Academy.
"Our kids hung in there," Schmidt said. "They never stopped. They never stopped playing and they never stopped believing they could win."
The victory was the third this season for Starkville Academy (39-0) against PCS. It helped set up a postseason rematch against Madison-Ridgeland Academy. MRA defeated East Rankin Academy to advance to the Class AAA title game.
Last season, Starkville Academy defeated MRA 47-35 in the Class AAA championship game and 50-39 in the MAIS overall title game to complete a run to three crowns.
This time, the Lady Volunteers rallied from a 33-21 deficit with 5 minutes, 38 seconds to go in the game. Starkville Academy relied on pressure defense it hasn't used very often this season. But Schmidt said the team recently started to practice it because teams have held the basketball in an attempt to control tempo. The switch allowed the Lady Volunteers to create turnovers and easy baskets on an afternoon in which they shot 11 of 41 from the field and fought themselves nearly the entire day.
"We were just saying to ourselves that five minutes is a long time," Starkville Academy senior guard Tiffany Huddleston said. "I knew we could come back. Being down 12, you're not thinking we're definitely going to come back, but we're not a team that is going to give up because we have worked too hard to choke here in the state tournament."
Richardson (team-high 11 points) overcame a 2-for-14 shooting day to hit two free throws with 2:14 to go that gave Starkville Academy a 36-35 lead. A blocked shot led to a foul and helped PCS answer with two free throws to re-take the lead with 1:56 remaining.
Following a turnover by the Lady Volunteers and another PCS blocked shot on Richardson, Proffitt (four points, 1-for-12 shooting) hit the free throws to set up the defensive stand. Starkville Academy's Nora Kathryn Carroll (eight points) guarded Trista McGee (game-high 20 points) for most of the afternoon, but Schmidt opted to switch the taller Richardson onto McGee. Thinking Carroll needed a break, Schmidt also believed Richardson would give McGee a different look if she attempted an outside shot.
The move paid off as Richardson overplayed McGee's shoulder and knocked away an entry pass into the lane to force a turnover.
"Coach Schmidt said, 'Deny, deny. All they are going to do is go to her,' " Richardson said. "I read the girls eyes and knew she was about to throw it and that is when I got the steal."
Richardson stepped to the free-throw line and drained two free throws on an afternoon in which little else went right for her. She had eight rebounds, three assists, and two steals, but she never looked to be in a rhythm on offense save for a quick turnaround jump shot in the lane at the end of the third quarter. She took that shot decisively and didn't give the defense a chance to block her shot.
"We fought ourselves the whole game," Richardson said. "We took ourselves out the game. I don't think it was PCS that did it. We let them get in our heads a little bit. I don't know if it was nerves or what, but once we settled down we took control."
PCS still had chances to add more drama. It missed a layup attempt that could have cut the deficit to one point, and then had another opportunity after Richardson missed the front end of a one-and-one with 10.5 seconds left. McGee, who had to leave the game for nearly three minutes in the third quarter to get her shoulder wrapped after contact with Anna Lea Little on an inbounds pass, had an open look at a 3-pointer from the right wing that hit the front rim in the waning seconds.
"I think we put (all of the bad stuff and frustration) out of our minds as a team," Richardson said. "We were down 12 at one point and we hit a couple of shots and the momentum started to go our way. I think it was just the moment and we felt it and we pretty much took over."
Last season, Starkville Academy rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Jackson Academy in the semifinals of the Class AAA State tournament. It then erased a 29-19 hole in the third quarter against MRA in the title game to secure the second of its three championships.
As much as the team had to battle to earn those victories, the win against PCS was even more of a struggle.
"We don't press," Schmidt said. "But because people have been holding the ball and slowing the game down a little bit we have been working on it, and it was effective today. Fortunately, we were able to get some turnovers, some free throws, and some quick baskets. We had a terrible night shooting it, but their defense was great. That is about the best defense we played all year. I think we fought the game a little bit because their defense was so good. We fought it instead of played it. I guess if you can fight a game like that against that good of a team and still win, you just have to be thankful it is over."
Huddleston was one of the Lady Volunteers who battled through a frustrating 32 minutes. She epitomized the Lady Volunteers' troubles when Maridee Higginbotham replaced her after a turnover with 19 seconds to play in the third quarter. Moments earlier, Huddleston had a cross-court pass by PCS that looked like an ideal steal go through her hands that resulted in a 3-pointer. PCS then beat Starkville Academy to a loose ball for an offensive rebound and had the ball go off the Lady Volunteers to retain possession.
Higginbotham's cameo was the only substitution Starkville Academy made in the game.
"It was a very loud gym," Huddleston said. "Looking back, it was fun to play in. Had I lost, I don't know how much fun it would have been. It was a very hard gym to play in because PCS had a lot of fans, a lot of real loud fans. They played phenomenal defense. It was hard to adjust to that. It was hard to get momentum going.
"Coach Schmidt says not to let the other teams frustrate you. It is hard to do, and I haven't perfected that. I will admit that."
Schmidt credited PCS for playing physical defense and taking her team out of what it typically tries to do. She also admitted the Lady Volunteers were a little "tight" and have to realize the pressure isn't on them and that it is on other teams to beat them. She expressed relief that her team survived the latest step and then exhaled as is to signify she was ready to tackle the next challenge.
In a way, it was the same mind-set Richardson used to block out a game's worth of frustration to make a play at the end after having a "What am I supposed to do now look? on her face for most of the day.
"I think it is because she has worked so hard all of her life," Schmidt said. "The harder you work, the less likely you are to surrender. They are very skilled players. They just waited and waited. Anna Lea made a big play, Tiffany got a hand on some balls, Nora guarded the girls all night. I think in our press they had an opportunity to get a hand on a ball. I don't know. I am just thankful it is over."
Anna Lea Little added 10 points and seven rebounds, and Huddleston had seven points, seven rebounds, two assists, and four steals to help the Lady Volunteers overcome 18 turnovers.
PCS shot 11 of 53 from the field and had 15 turnovers.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.