February 23, 2013 11:16:18 PM
JACKSON -- The power of the assist can't be denied.
The Starkville Academy girls basketball team showed Saturday that sharing the basketball can be the best way to erase the memory of a forgettable afternoon.
Maggie Proffitt scored 19 points to lead three players in double figures in Starkville Academy's 64-29 victory against Madison-Ridgeland Academy in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA championship game at Jackson Academy.
The victory extends Starkville Academy winning streak to 49 games, and secures the team's second consecutive title. Last weekend, the Lady Volunteers won their second-straight Class AAA, Division II title. They likely will begin defense of their overall state title Wednesday at Mississippi College in Clinton.
"I think we were relaxed today," Starkville Academy coach Glenn Schmidt said. "I think knowing we had gotten that one over with (helped us). Our defense got us going today. We were a bit looser and more relaxed and had a hand in the passing lane and we ran a little bit. If you have seen us play before, that is how we play best. I am just real pleased the fans and the people got to see us play like we play because that is when we're happy, playing like that."
Starkville Academy (40-0), which is ranked No. 6 in The Clarion-Ledger's Super 10 poll of all classifications, used a 19-4 run in the final five-plus minutes Friday to defeat Presbyterian Christian 40-37 in the semifinals. The Lady Volunteers were 11 of 41 from the field and committed 18 turnovers in a battle against themselves.
What a difference a day makes.
Against MRA (29-9), Starkville Academy had a bounce in its step, an extra ounce of energy to chase loose balls and rebounds, and a keener shooting eye. The Lady Volunteers shot 42.2 percent from the field and had 17 assists, including a stretch of five in a row in the second quarter in which it extended a 17-8 first-quarter lead into a 28-10 bulge.
"They got a wake-up call yesterday and they came to play today," said MRA coach Stephen Force, whose program lost to Starkville Academy in the Class AAA and overall state title games last season. "MRA did not. I am not going to let this one game destroy our season. This group of girls after losing four starters put themselves in position to get back to this championship game. We knew it was going to be an uphill climb. (Starkville Academy) is better than they were last year, and I am breaking in babies over here on the bench."
Force called timeouts in the first half to try to stop Starkville Academy's momentum, but he said his team didn't execute its defensive game plan. He said his squad isn't gifted with a lot of team speed in certain areas, so he felt his players had to do things differently. He said even when it executed Starkville Academy knocked down its shots and rolled to its third victory against MRA this season.
Schmidt said she knew immediately the Lady Volunteers were going to play differently Saturday. She said senior point guard Tiffany Huddleston, one of four Lady Volunteers named to the all-tournament team, handled being given a lot of open space to shoot the basketball and responded with 15 points, six assists, five rebounds, and four steals.
"I didn't want to tell her she was wide open," Schmidt said. "I think she was so shocked at first. She came though there and hit some big baskets early."
Proffitt, who was 1 of 12 from the field Friday, also delivered a stat-stuffer, adding eight rebounds and five assists. Anna Lea Little added 11 points and four rebounds, while Sallie Kate Richardson had seven points, 20 rebounds, four assists, and four steals. All three joined Huddleston on the all-tournament team.
Nora Kathryn Carroll added five points and five rebounds, while Maridee Higginbotham and Janiece Pigg, the team's first players off the bench, had a chance to contribute in extended minutes. Higginbotham played 19 seconds and was the only substitution Schmidt made Friday afternoon.
"I sensed the look on our faces," Schmidt said. "The best defense has been played on Anna Lea and Maggie the last two weeks. When they both hit a shot, I knew we would loosen up and relax a little bit."
Richardson, who made a key steal in the fourth quarter to help preserve the victory against PCS, also felt a completely different vibe from the team. She said that confidence allowed it to showcase its chemistry and ability to play off each other. Starkville Academy worked the ball for an extra pass in the half-court set to find an open shooter. It also relied on its off-ball movement to cut into open lanes and space to create great looks.
"When one person is hot, we know where to get it to," Richardson said. "When someone is not hot, we just push through and encourage each other. Things started falling a lot better than they did (Friday)."
Richardson said Schmidt encourages the Lady Volunteers to make the extra pass. Schmidt said she doesn't harp on the fact that the players need to share the basketball. She said it looks so natural because she tries from an early age to get the players to understand the team nature of the game and how successful a squad can be if it shares the ball and makes a defense work.
When Starkville Academy is hitting like it did Saturday, assists -- like jump shots -- rain down on the score sheet.
"Yesterday was rough," Proffitt said. "I didn't play my best, but I tried not to let it get to me. I am just glad we got the win. I knew I couldn't have played any worse. I knew it was going to be a better game, especially when I hit the 3-pointer from the top of the key in the first half. I think that definitely pumped us up a little bit. We just came out with a lot of energy knowing we had to get it done.
"It is easy (to share the basketball) because we have five players who can score, so you know you're not making a mistake whenever you pass it out for another shot because we all ave confidence in each other that we can knock down the shot. Coach Schmidt always talks about that it is not about points. It is a team effort, so we just try to share the ball as much as we can."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.