By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
Ripley’s Lady Tigers are a lot better than Katie Bates thought they would be in the preseason.
They gave her a North 3A championship trophy to prove it.
Bates’ team defeated Division 1-3A rival Belmont, 42-39, on the Lady Cardinals’ home court Saturday to win the North Mississippi Tournament title and advance to this week’s state tournament semifinals.
The Lady Tigers (27-4), the defending state champions, play South runner-up Southeast Lauderdale at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Mississippi Coliseum.
“We had only two starters returning and didn’t have a lot of experience,” Bates said of her preseason doubts. “I knew we’d have a good season, but I didn’t know how good.
“That’s why I was talking about this being unexpected.”
Following Saturday’s win at Belmont, Bates told the Southern Sentinel’s Kedrick Storey: “Honestly, I don’t think anybody – not even me or the girls – thought we would be here at this point.”
Belmont (30-4) beat Ripley twice during the season – 39-37 in the regular season and 57-49 in the division championship game. The Lady Cardinals play Choctaw Central at 9 a.m. Saturday in the state tournament semifinals.
CHILLS, RUCKES LEAD
Bates had two quality starters to build around in junior guard Jayla Chills, who is averaging a team-high 17 points per game, and senior post player Becca Ruckes.
The 6-foot-1 Ruckes averages 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. She had 21 boards in the Lady Tigers’ North semifinals win against East Side.
“Becca’s grown up and added more moves,” Bates said. “She understands what we need her to do. Her game is catching it around the basket and scoring.
“She has really good hands and her footwork has improved.”
Bates’ concern in the preseason was whether Chills and Ruckes would step up and become leaders.
“Chills and Ruckes played their roles for us, but they’re not very vocal,” Bates said. “It took them a while to become leaders. Once they did, it changed the whole dynamics of the team.”
Ripley’s had a host of newcomers fill in for the three starters it lost from last season’s title team.
In the middle, junior Daisha Colom, along with freshmen Rickayla Hoyle and Jada Rich, have supported Ruckes.
A freshman, Zaida Cox, and a sophomore, Matavia Cox, join Chills in the backcourt. Matavia Cox suffered a sprained knee ligament (MCL) in the postseason, but is expected to play this week. Senior Latisha Evans and sophomore Madison Moore replaced her in the lineup.
“We’ve had a lot of players contribute,” Bates said.
It’s certainly changed the preseason forecast for this Ripley team.