By Brandon Speck
PONTOTOC – Kayla Russell couldn’t get out of the Itawamba AHS gym fast enough, a trail of tears behind her after Pontotoc made a surprising exit from the Class 4A playoffs this season.
But she will eventually remember the clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds of the 2012 MHSAA Class 4A state championship game that gave the Lady Warriors a gold ball – and the bright grin she ran down the court with.
Pontotoc fell short in a bid for a fourth straight state tournament appearance in a 52-50 loss against Gentry in the North quarterfinals this season.
It has been quite a run, though – seniors Russell, Erin Claire Stegall, Olivia Owen and Kayla Rush playing the last games of a four-year career that ends with a 115-16 record. They went 34-0 in the title run two seasons ago.
“I just told them not to let this last game reflect their career,” Pontotoc coach Bill Russell said after the loss. “They’ve had great careers. They can’t let this one game be all they remember about basketball. They’ve had some great memories.”
Two junior starters are among the returners, Alex Brown and Marlee Hatcher. Sophomore Charity Aaron was on the floor when the final horn sounded.
Through tears after the loss, Brown was trying to calculate how many home games her senior teammates had lost over their four-year career. The answer is four, but only one time over the last three seasons.
On the televised broadcast of Pontotoc’s championship, Rush is seen on the bench in tears, the happy tears she’ll remember, not the ones she fought off to talk after her final game.
“It’s pretty tough,” Rush said. “We’re all a family. It’s hard. We wake up, play ball, stay at the gym and play ball. We’re just together all the time. Now, it’s just going to be different.”
Rare family affair
Sitting along the baseline of a Pontotoc girls game two seasons ago, Kayla Russell’s grandfather beamed as he talked about his granddaughter.
He said she lived in that gym, “a gym rat.”
Her father, Bill Russell, has had an opportunity to reach success levels with his daughter that most basketball coaches and playing kids only dream about.
“It’s tough,” Bill Russell said after the loss against Gentry, Kayla’s last game. “I’ve enjoyed coaching her.”
The game-winning 3-pointer she made against Forrest County in the 2012 Class 4A championship game somehow banked near the top corner of the glass. Shooters find ways to make shots, none bigger than that. And no trophy is bigger than the one that Pontotoc clutched just minutes after that shot that shook Mississippi Coliseum.
Not many get to do either one of those things. Even fewer get to do so with their father.