By Matthew Martin/Sports Correspondent
For the second straight year, Hokes Bluff’s girls basketball team is the Etowah County Schools Tournament champions.
After being expected to win the title last go around, however, this year’s Eagles squad is wearing a surprising crown.
For Hokes Bluff head coach Jason Shields, he’ll take it either way, following the Eagles’ 49-45 victory over Southside in last Saturday championship game at Beck Field House on the campus of Gadsden State.
“Nobody was expecting them to do it, so that was a relief a little bit that they didn’t have the pressure of saying, ‘Hey, you gotta do it again,” Shields said after the game. “This is one of the best feelings I’ve had as a coach. They’ve been working their butt off and I’ve been poking at them a little bit. As a coach, that’s what you want to see. You want to see it start paying off.”
The Eagles had to fight and claw from the very beginning of the game, as Southside was hot from the opening tip.
The Panthers started the game on a 14-5 run, and Hokes Bluff’s composure was the only thing that kept it from being run out of the building. After settling down, the Eagles were able to scratch their way back into the contest, eventually closing the quarter with an 11-8 edge.
Still, Southside held a 22-16 advantage heading into the second quarter.
Neither team could gain any measurable ground in the second period, although Hokes Bluff had the advantage in scoring at 9-5 to go into the locker room trailing by just two points at 27-25.
Hokes Bluff’s Carlie Shields scored 13 points in the first half to keep her team in the game, but coming out in the second half, Shields put her team on her back and electrified the building with her play.
Carlie Shields had an even better third quarter, scoring 11 points in the frame. Her 3-pointer early in the third quarter gave Hokes Bluff a 32-29 lead, its first since holding a 2-0 lead early in the game’s opening minutes.
For the remainder of the third, the team traded baskets and free throws as the Eagles held a slim 38-36 lead heading into the game’s final quarter.
Hokes Bluff never surrendered its lead in the fourth, though Southside came close to pushing ahead when Molly Tucker’s basket pulled the Panthers within one, 46-45.
But the Eagles were too tough from the free throw line down the stretch, hitting 5-of-7 with Katie Alford and Elizabeth White each hitting a pair of foul shots.
Following Tucker’s big shot for Southside, White’s two free throws extended the lead back to three points at 48-45.
Chelsea Machleit hit 1-of-2 free throws for Hokes Bluff in the final seconds for the final score.
“It was a great game, either team could have won or lost,” Southside coach Kim Nails said. “I am extremely proud of my team, and the reason is, we might not have come out on top tonight, but my team has graduated to the point that it’s really not about the name on the back (of the jersey), but it’s the name on the front that’s the most important. Whether we won or we lost, we’ve taken a step in the right direction and I think we’ll continue.”
Hokes Bluff seemed to take a big step during the tournament after coming into this season having to replace several key members from last year’s Etowah County championship squad.
One of the biggest keys to this year’s title was the play of Carlie Shields. Her career-high 30 points could not have come at a better time, according to her father.
“She had 30? Are you kidding me? Thirty points, I can’t believe that,” Jason Shields said. “Tonight, her effort, she’s got the will to win. She shows up every night with that will. She’s a special kid. Not only here, but she does things right off the floor. That’s what I appreciate out of her, and she knows that. Basketball is something that’s just an extra in our life that we get to spend some time with.”
White also had a huge game for the Eagles, pulling down 11 rebounds while scoring two points. Hannah Evans scored nine points and Keisha Chapman scored three points and handed out four assists.
For Southside, Tucker scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds – four offensive rebounds and four defensive. Haley Troup scored 10 points and had four assists, while Sydney D’eath and Beth Allen Smith each scored seven points.
Shields was named the Tournament MVP. She was joined on the All-Tournament Team by teammates Chapman, Evans and White.
Also on the All-Tournament team were Southside’s Savannah Thomas, Troup and Tucker; Sardis’ Kacee Mashburn; West End’s Morgan Cleveland; Gaston’s Abby Elrod and Kierra Porter; and Glencoe’s Hope Gaskin and Laura Poovey.