Photo: Gadsden State’s Diamond Jolly (left) finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Lady Cardinals’ 80-59 victory over Bishop State in the Alabama Community College Conference Tournament women’s basketball quarterfinals on Tuesday (March 6) in Birmingham. (Messenger file photo)
By Chris McCarthy
With his team holding slim two-point advantage at intermission against Bishop State in the Alabama Community College Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday (March 6), Gadsden State women’s head basketball coach Marty Dixon turned up the heat on defense in the second half.
That strategy paid immediate dividends, as a combination of full and halfcourt presses by the Lady Cardinals resulted in several points off turnovers. The Lady Wildcats managed just six points from the field during the third quarter, and by the time the buzzer sounded, Gadsden State had stretched its lead to 62-40.
Bishop State never got within 20 points the rest of the way, and the Lady Cardinals advanced to the conference semifinals with an 80-59 victory at Lawson State in Birmingham.
Gadsden State (15-12) will face top-seeded and defending state champion Shelton State (31-0) on Thursday, March 8, in the Final Four portion of the tournament. The Lady Bucs defeated Lawson State, 71-51, in other quarterfinal action on Tuesday.
“I just told them (at halftime) that we had to pick up the intensity level and making it tough for them to get good shots,” said Dixon. “We were backing up (on defense) and giving them too much in the first half. The plan at the start was to go the full 94 feet (of the court), and we weren’t playing but 75 of it. We did a much better job of that in the second half.”
Bishop State’s first field goal of the second half did not come until the 3:35 mark of the third quarter. By that time, the Lady Cardinals were ahead 49-32. Diamond Jolly and Te’ Johnson each dropped in six points during that 19-4 run. Tyesha Haynes and Tori Sanders both scored eight points in the third period to help push the GSCC lead to 22 points heading into the final frame.
Dixon was able to clear his bench for much of the fourth quarter, and Gadsden State earned its first state semifinal berth since the 2014-15 season.
Jolly, who currently is first in rebounding and third in scoring in the league, finished with a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“A lot of the times, the way Diamond goes, we go,” said Dixon. “When she gets on a roll, everybody rolls with her.”
Besides her 10 points, 2017 Southside High graduate Kelsey Patterson was a pest on defense, coming up with four steals and tying up the ball several times to change possession.
“Kelsey was all over the floor,” said Dixon. “She’ll probably be a little sore tomorrow with how many times she hit the floor. She doesn’t mind rolling around and doing some of the grunt work that needs to be done.”
Gadsden State was far from dominant in the first half. It took several minutes for the Lady Cardinals to get their bearings, but seven points from Jolly and six from Patterson helped provide GSCC with a 17-14 lead after one quarter.
In and back-and-forth second period, Gadsden State extended its lead to five points before the Lady Wildcats tied the game at 28-28 late in the quarter. But a pair of free throws by Johnson sent the Lady Cardinals into the locker room with a 30-28 advantage.
Sanders scored 13 points for Gadsden State, including three 3-point baskets. Johnson had 11, followed by Haynes with 10 and Morgan Blalock with six.
Dixon noted that the Lady Cardinals’ free throw performance of 58 percent (22-for-38) would not be enough against the top-ranked junior college team in the nation on Thursday.
“Our free throw shooting probably has cost us at least five games so far. We want to be between the 70 to 75 percent mark, and our inability to get to that mark has hurt us this year.”
Although the Lady Cardinals lost their two regular season games to Shelton State by 62 and 50 points, respectively, Dixon is confident that his team’s mindset will be focused on the here and now come Thursday afternoon.
“Against a team like that, you’ve got to maintain your intensity and give 100 percent for four quarters,” he said. “You can’t do it for three quarters and then coast, because they’ll make you pay. No lead is safe against them. We’ll have to go wide open from the pre-game warm-ups to the final buzzer.”