By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – H.W. Byers is state champion today thanks to some heads-up play down the stretch by a hobbled star and a freshmen.
Junior guard Alexis Hardaway, who missed more than half the season – 21 games – with a knee injury, created a game-clinching turnover in the final 14 seconds of Byers’ 48-43 win Thursday against Coldwater in the finals of the MHSAA Class 1A State Tournament at the Mississippi Coliseum.
Hardaway, playing with a knee brace being held together by athletic tape, scored 18 points to pace the Lady Lions.
“Alexis knows how the game goes,” Byers coach Jason Thompson said. “She has the instinct on what to do and how to do it.
“I told her, ‘the ball’s in your hands, go out and do it.’ She basically took over the game.”
It was Hardaway’s defensive play, tapping a Coldwater pass to a teammate, Charmaine Stackhouse, that sealed the win. Byers was leading 46-43.
The Lady Lions also got a stellar effort from rookie guard Richenda Crutcher, who scored all six of her points in the final four minutes. Her free throws with 12.5 seconds left gave Byers its winning margin, 48-43.
Crutcher’s steal from Coldwater star Jerontay Clemons and layup gave the Lions a 41-38 with 3:12 remaining.
“That was a huge defensive and offensive play, it swung the momentum,” Thompson said. “That kept us in the game.”
The championship was the third in four seasons for H.W. Byers (29-8), which lost only one game to a Mississippi team this season – division rival Myrtle.
Coldwater (28-4) was led by Clemons, who scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds for a double-double. However, she scored just three points in the fourth quarter.
Byers entered the final period trailing 35-29, but went on a 16-4 run to bolt ahead 45-39 with 2:18 remaining.
The Lady Lions won the gold ball without much help from preseason all-state forward Kourtney Coleman and post player Kyra Gulledge, who spent the night in foul trouble. The two combined for 14 points and 16 rebounds, but didn’t play late.
Coleman, a senior, went out with 5:57 left in the game.
“When you’re on the bench, you’re still part of the team,” she said. “I was their biggest cheerleader.”