Lady Bulldogs claim school’s first basketball crown after pummeling rival Jackson CountyBy THOMAS P. WEAVER HORIZON Editor
MURFREESBORO-Cinderella story, David taking down Goliath, unlikely underdog win… call it what you want, but there’s one thing that can’t be denied–the 2011/2012 Clay County Lady Bulldogs are State Champions for the first time in school history!
Even down-river rival Jackson County, who had beaten the Lady Dawgs four times this season, couldn’t keep this year’s Clay County team from hoisting the gold ball and forever cementing their place in local sports lore.
An intense swagger and an overall unyielding winning attitude was evident from the start as the team took to the court like champions and played as if they would settle for nothing less.
The enthusiasm exuded from the team and was contagious to a massive Clay County crowd gathered here at the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University, all of which created the perfect atmosphere for the school’s biggest moment on the grandest stage.
Those factors, paired with pristine performances by all five Lady Bulldog starters, led to the 60-39 pummeling of the Lady Bulldogs’ nemesis Jackson County in the one game that mattered most.
Four out of five CCHS gamers tallied double figures and the fifth, junior guard Mattie Monroe, scored nine.
Senior point guard Mackenzie Hamilton led all scorers with 20 points, senior inside force Casey Cooper put up a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and team-leader Sydney Roach and senior wing Allie Brown each had 10 in their final games as a Lady Bulldog.
All four were also named to the All-State Tournament Team and Roach garnered Most Valuable Player honors, not only because of her efforts in the finals, but also due to averaging 28 points in the Lady Bulldogs’ wins over Cloudland and Summertown (see next week’s HORIZON for details).
The opening-round win and semi-final overtime victory vaulted Clay County into the championship–a game legendary head coach Joe Sims had been in four other times, but had never won.
“I was almost numb with about two minutes left to go,” Sims said Monday. “I looked up at the scoreboard, realized we were going to win and almost started crying.
“I can’t describe the feeling. It just felt so good and I am so proud of these girls.
“Nobody gave us much of a chance and we weren’t talked about like the rest of the teams down there, but these girls pulled it off.”
Sims said his team had the toughest route in the tournament, but credited them with working through it to become champions.
“They mentally and physically took it to another level and came ready to play,” the coach said. “I knew we had a good team, but these girls, especially our seniors, stepped it up when it came down to it.
“I never imagined we would have beat them by that much, but we did and now nobody can take that away from us.”
Despite the one-sided final margin, the contest was another epic battle between the two teams from the same district.
Unlike the other four times where the Lady Blue Devils had gotten the best of Clay County this season–twice in the regular season, in the District 7A championship, and in the Region 4A title game, the Lady Bulldogs were the aggressors early as they jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the opening minutes behind a pair of big three-point baskets from Brown and Monroe.
A 7-0 run spearheaded by the same two players was then capped off by Hamilton as she took a pass in for a layup from eventual tournament MVP Roach for two of her game-high point-total.
The basket handed Clay County a 15-7 advantage with three minutes to go in the quarter and prompted a Jackson County timeout.
“I told the girls we had to be the aggressor,” Sims said. “We came out pressing to get us in that mode and even though we really didn’t get much out of it, I think that let them know we came to play.
“Coming out like that early was definitely the key to the game for us.”
Out of the break, Jackson County scored four from the charity stripe to cut the lead to four points, but on the ensuing Clay County possession Cooper challenged the Lady Blue Devils inside and was fouled.
Two made free throws by Cooper and another Brown field goal, giving her eight for the quarter, left the Lady Bulldogs with an eight-point margin as the first-period buzzer sounded with the score 19-11.
Jackson County opened the second stanza making one of two foul shots, but momentum stayed with Clay County as Cooper pulled down back-to-back offensive rebounds handing her team second chances that led to a Lady Bulldog 6-0 run putting the squad up by 13 near the four-minute mark.
Hamilton started the streak with a layup, then Roach scored four consecutively off a steal by junior Hannah Ogletree and one of her own that she turned into points at the free throw line pushing the score to 25-12 with 3:56 to play in the half.
The Lady Blue Devils immediately responded with a spurt of their own as they outscored Clay County 8-1 to end the quarter and Cooper picked up her third foul during the melee forcing her to sit out the remaining 2:38 of the half.
Jackson County outscored the Lady Bulldogs 9-7 in the second quarter and cut the margin back to six at intermission as the scoreboard read 26-20.
“I was a little concerned at the half with Cooper’s foul situation and them making a run,” Sims said. “I told her to play smart and stressed the importance of us keeping up our intensity on the defensive end of the court.”
Things got interesting early on in the second half as the teams swapped baskets to open the period. Roach nailed a shot from distance, but it was quickly answered by Jackson County. Then Cooper, who returned to the game with three fouls and never committed another one, drove around a Lady Blue Devil from the top of the key for a layup, before their opponent scored again keeping the margin at a half-dozen, 31-25.
Jackson County finally came up short, Cooper pulled down the rebound, and then found Hamilton for another basket pushing the lead back to eight with 5:20 left in the quarter.
That’s when the Lady Blue Devils found their groove and cut the lead to two behind six straight points in two short minutes.
Clay County had gone cold from the field and momentum seemed to be turning as the score sat at 33-31 with under a minute remaining in the period, but the Lady Bulldogs answered the call with five consecutive points to end the frame.
Hamilton again avoided a defender and drove the lane where she slipped in an under-handed layup by the outstretched arm of a Lady Blue Devil with only 40 seconds left increasing her team’s lead to four, but Jackson County retained possession for what was supposed to be the final shot of the quarter.
After holding the ball for over 30 seconds, a Lady Blue Devil stepped on the baseline giving the ball back to Clay County out of bounds on the end-line with only 1.9 seconds left on the clock.
Monroe pulled the trigger on a long pass hauled in like an NFL receiver by Roach as she crossed half-court. All in one motion, she gathered in the ball and heaved a shot as the buzzer sounded. It miraculously found the backboard and banked in to give the Lady Bulldogs a seven-point advantage heading into the final quarter with the score 38-31.
“That was huge as far as a momentum swing goes,” SIms said. “I just hoped we could get it in and not turn it over, but I saw Sydney give Mattie a signal that she was going to leak out and it worked when she hit it.
“I told the Herald Citizen I heard her call bank, but she said she didn’t,” he said jokingly.
With momentum back in Lady Dawg favor, Sims gathered his team for the final scheduled break of the game.
“I just told them this was it,” Sims said. “I told them if we play our game we are going to win this.”
Roach then organized a second huddle as her team headed out on the court where the crowd could see her clapping encouragement to her teammates as they all realized they were only eight minutes from reaching the pinnacle of girls high school basketball in Tennessee.
“She usually doesn’t say much,” Sims said, “but when she does they listen.”
Whatever she said must have taken hold, because after a Jackson County bucket that closed the gap to five, her team went on a 12-0 run to close the history books on the Lady Blue Devils and go up by 17 points, 50-33.
“I knew when I couldn’t hardly keep them off the floor between quarters during the TV timeout that they were ready to put the game away,” Sims said. “They wanted it bad and they showed it with that run.”
Cooper drove twice from the top of the key to score, one of which resulted in a three-point play the hard way, to account for the first five. Then a Roach steal resulted in two more for Hamilton, Monroe drained another trifecta, and the point guard capped off the run with another slashing layup off an assist from her backcourt counterpart.
Jackson County ended the Lady Bulldog push with a bucket bringing the tally to 50-35 at the 4:45 mark and Lady Blue Devil reserves came in the game to begin sending Clay County to the foul line.
“We weren’t going to shoot it and he (Jackson County coach Jim Brown) knew it,” Sims said. “All we had to do was make our foul shots and we made enough of them to put the game away.”
The Lady Bulldogs knocked down 10 of 14 from the charity stripe, including six of eight made by Hamilton down the stretch, to end the game with the 21-point margin and make history taking the 2012 State title.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Sims said of his team’s accomplishment. “They are some of the smartest players I’ve ever coached and they really bought in to our emphasis on preparation, intensity, and execution.
“They did what they had to do to win and now they are going to be remembered forever as State Champs.”
See next week’s HORIZON for a special commemorative section honoring the amazing season of the State Champion Lady Bulldogs, including details from the other two State Tournament wins, a look back at Sims’ legendary coaching career, a season review, player comments, photos, congratulatory advertisements from businesses, and more.