By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Ripley’s Lady Tigers chartered a bus last year for their trip to the state tournament, then lost to Belmont in the championship game.
This season, as senior guard Shunquest Howell put it, the Lady Tigers made the 31/2-hour trip to Jackson “on the yellow bus.”
The end result – the yellow dog-powered Lady Tigers won a gold ball Thursday by defeating Choctaw Central 57-54 before an estimated crowd of 5,000 fans at the Mississippi Coliseum in MHSAA Class 3A State Tournament’s championship game.
“We went low key this year,” Ripley fourth-year coach Katie Bates said, then laughed. “I wanted to save the money for the championship rings.”
Ripley (27-4), was led by senior post player Becca Ruckes, who recorded a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds. She scored six of her points in the final 5 minutes, including a pair of free throws with 1:58 remaining to give her team a 54-49 lead.
“I felt like I had to do it, but it wasn’t all me,” Ruckes said. “People got the ball to me so I could score.”
Moments before Ruckes’ free throws, sophomore guard Jayla Chills sank a 3-pointer to break a tie score. She finished with 13 points.
“I don’t know if (Chills) has a clue about how big she plays,” Bates said.
Despite Ruckes’ effort and that of her teammates, Choctaw Central took the Lady Tigers down to the wire. The Lady Warriors closed the gap to 56-54 with 35 seconds left on a steal and 3-pointer by Jana Chickaway, who led her team with 15 points.
Ripley answered with one free throw from Howell, who had 14 points, at the 25-second mark to push its lead to 57-54.
Choctaw Central (31-4) had an opportunity to look for a game-tying 3-pointer, but a closely-guarded Anissa Allen got off an awkward shot that never came close.
“It was a matter of two good basketball teams playing, they just had three more points than we did,” Choctaw Central coach Willis Tullos said. “My players fought as hard as they could to win.”
Ripley, still stinging from last season’s loss in the finals to Belmont, had plenty of fight, too.
“It feels better to be on this side, definitely,” Bates said. “We made a goal to be right back here again, to this game. The girls worked really hard, even at times when it looked like we wouldn’t make it.
“They stepped up and got us back here.”
Ripley lost back-to-back games in late January to Division 1-3A rival Belmont and 4A power Lafayette. The loss to Lafayette was the Tigers’ last. They won nine straight to close the season, winning the division tournament and the North half along the way.
“This is a great feeling,” said senior guard India Howard, who missed last season’s championship game with a knee injury. “We had to do it. We wanted to make our mark.”
Ripley’s other state championship in girls hoops came in 2003. The Lady Tigers lost in 2004 and last year.