By David Wheeler/NEMS Daily Journal
PONTOTOC – It would have been very easy for the New Albany Lady Bulldogs to stumble at this step in its basketball season.
The Lady Bulldogs have only lost once against a Mississippi team in more than 12 months.
New Albany has been ranked No. 1 in the state all season.
And just 12 months ago, the Lafayette Lady Commodores had battled the Lady Bulldogs in an overtime thriller in this very tournament.
The Lady Bulldogs did not stumble Friday, dispatching the Lady Commodores with a clutch fourth quarter, 49-35 in semifinal action of the North 4A tournament at Pontotoc High School.
“We knew Lafayette was going to be on this side of the bracket 12 months ago,” New Albany coach John Stroud said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on these girls all season.”
With a supremely experienced squad, the Lady Bulldogs (26-4) handled the pressure of this contest, qualifying for the state tournament with the victory. New Albany will play Pontotoc today at 7 p.m. for the 4A North championship, after the Lady Warriors came from behind to defeat the Byhalia Lady Indians 59-51.
New Albany was looking to take the drama out of this rematch early. After an early offensive adjustment to the well prepared Lady Commodores (25-6), Jazmine Spears scored three consecutive baskets to grab a 12-2 lead.
Spears went on to score 11 early points for the Lady Bulldogs, who led 21-9 early in the second quarter. New Albany was then content to run some clock against the Lafayette defense, and still led 24-17 at the half.
Lafayette was not ready to concede this contest, and as Shaquilla Isom scored a field goal with 2 seconds left in the third quarter, the Lady Commodores had pulled within 34-30. Lafayette was within 36-33 with 6 minutes, 9 seconds to play following a Kandice Mayes basket, but that is when the new Albany defense put the hammer down.
The Lady Bulldogs were able to get some transition offense going, and an 8-0 run was capped by a Micha Washington basket, and New Albany held a 44-33 lead with 2:44 left.
“We played nice defense the whole game,” Stroud said. “We had to get use to how physical Lafayette was, but in the final four minutes, our defense was awfully good.”
Spears led the New Albany offense with 21 points, with Kebrina Lucas adding 15. Isom was the only Lafayette player in double figures with 14.
“We did a pretty good job on Spears, but we let Lucas get away from us at times,” Lafayette coach Amy Sutton said. “The lead they got in the first quarter was too much, and we were playing catch up the rest of the way.”
Byhalia was up in the third quarter 34-27, but Pontotoc (24-5) stormed ahead in the final two minutes of the period.
A three-point play by Ebony Brinker helped the Lady Warriors to lead 43-40 entering the final quarter.
There, Kayla Russell hit a 3-pointer to open the quarter, then hit a crucial 3-pointer with 2:49 left to push the Pontotoc margin to 53-48.
Brinker led Pontotoc with 25 points.