By Gene Phelps
JACKSON – Aliyah Akins was more of a cheerleader than a player for Pine Grove last season.
The reason? A back injury.
This season, the 6-foot junior is healthy and has helped lead Pine Grove’s Lady Panthers (29-7) into today’s 6:30 p.m. MHSAA Class 1A State Tournament championship game against Mound Bayou JFK (31-0) at the Mississippi Coliseum.
“She has really played well down this stretch,” Pine Grove first-year coach Katie Bates said. “I hate to jinx her because the last time I said that, she didn’t play as well.
“She has done a phenomenal job. She’s a big presence inside.”
In last week’s state semifinals 51-46 win against Hinds AHS, Akins scored a team-high 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, six on the defensive end.
“She got key some key rebounds and key baskets … She took over,” Bates said.
Akins saw limited playing time last season because of her injury. “I strained my back really bad,” she said. “I didn’t play much because they wanted to make sure it healed.”
Bates was really impressed by Akins’ aggressive drive to the basket for a field goal in the semifinals.
“It’s been exciting to watch her transform and gain that much confidence,” she said. “Nothing makes you happier.”
Akins is one if the many reasons Pine Grove is one victory away from bringing home another gold ball to Tippah County. The program previously won in 1981, ’82 and ’86.
The team’s four senior starters – guards Anna Dixon, Leslie Hopkins and Katelin Miller, and forward Anna Fryar – have all contributed. Fryar had 13 points and a team-high eight rebounds against Hinds AHS. Dixon and Miller combined for 18 points and 12 boards.
Today’s game is a rematch of the North half finals, a thriller won by JFK, 45-40.
Akins is excited about the rematch.
“We’ve put in all this hard work, every single day, just so we could be here at this point,” she said.
Added Bates, “We’ve trained for this moment all year.”
Girls 1A State Tournament
• Who: Pine Grove (29-7) vs. Mound Bayou JFK (31-0)
• What: State Championship
• When: 6:30 p.m. today
• Where: Mississippi Coliseum, Jackson
• Pine Grove: G Anna Fryar (10.1 ppg), G Katelin Miller 10 ppg), G Leslie Hopkins (9.5 ppg), G Anna Dixon, P Aliyah Akins.
• Mound Bayou JFK: P/F Frederica Haywood (22 ppg, 12 rpg), F Ieysha Mays (17 ppg), Aleghsa Haywood (9 ppg).