By Chris McCarthy/Editor
With Southside High giving Hokes Bluff all it could handle in Saturday’s Etowah County Schools girls basketball tournament championship game, the Lady Eagles relied on their junior center to bail them out.
Kendall Johnson scored Class 4A No. 9 Hokes Bluff’s final 10 points, including all four of her teams’ fourth-quarter field goals, to propel the Lady Eagles (20-3) to a 42-41 victory at Gaston High.
It was Hokes Bluff’s fifth straight county tournament title.
Johnson, who was named tournament MVP, finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Fourteen of her points came in the second half when the Lady Eagles’ largest lead was six points.
“Kendall just came out and battled tonight,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Jason Shields. “She got a lot of her points off other people’s penetration. We played unselfish, and it’s hard to do that in tournament play. One of the things that makes basketball fun to watch is when [a player] will give someone else the open shot. I think that we forced it a bit a times tonight, but late in the game we just wanted to make sure that we had the best opportunity at the time.”
After Johnson’s basket at the 1:02 mark of the third quarter provided Hokes Bluff with a 32-30 advantage, the Lady Eagles fed the ball to her in the post on almost every subsequent possession, and Johnson responded with six straight points to stretch the Hokes Bluff lead to 38-32 with 4:18 left in the game.
The Lady Panthers (14-8) then went to a full-court press in order to create some points off turnovers. The strategy worked to a degree, as a four points from Lauren Hunt and a traditional three-point play by Kelsey Patterson narrowed the gap to two points with 1:25 on the clock.
With under a minute remaining, Southside’s pressure defense forced the Lady Eagles to turn ball over in their own end on three straight possessions.
“We have to a better job with that,” said Shields. “We had too many turnovers.”
But the Lady Panthers failed to score each time and were forced to foul with less than 20 seconds left.
Johnson’s final basket of the night – a layup off a pass by Tylynn Register – put the Lady Eagles ahead 42-39 with seven seconds left.
“I thought that [Southside] would overplay Kendall on that inbounds pass, and I told Tylynn to go with it if they left Kendall one-one-one,” said Shields. “Kendall is very guard to guard one-on-one.”
The Lady Panthers then cleared the rebound following a missed Hokes Bluff shot, but Hunter Ashcraft failed to draw the necessary foul on her layup with less than a second remaining.
Shields had his team use the motion offense for much of the game in an attempt to spread out the Southside defense and isolate Johnson down low.
“We weren’t necessarily trying to hold it; were just trying to get them further and further away from the basket so they wouldn’t double [Johnson]. Anytime you can get a layup with someone on your hip pocket, that’s the best shot in basketball. We’ll take every one of those that we can get.”
Logan Black added eight points for Hokes Bluff. Register and Jenkins each had four assists. Sydney Ball grabbed seven rebounds, while Amanda Noah came up with four steals.
The Lady Panthers had the upper hand in the early going. Jessi Colvin’s jump shot with a minute left in the first quarter provided Southside with an 8-4 lead.
Hokes Bluff quickly erased that deficit, as a pair of 3-point baskets by Black powered a 10-2 second period run. Southside responded with a 7-0 stretch that tied the game at 19-all before Johnson’s two foul shots sent the Eagles into halftime up 21-19.
The Lady Panthers never led the rest of the way but stayed within striking distance. A six-point Hokes Bluff lead was wiped out by a 9-3 Southside spurt, with Alexis Thompson’s basket at 1:32 tying the game at 30-all.
“We played good enough defense in the fourth quarter to have won; we just didn’t connect enough on the offensive end,” said Southside head coach Kim Nails. “We didn’t take advantage of what our press was creating for us. If you force a turnover, you’ve got to be able to capitalize and put two points on the board. We also struggled with matching up with [Johnson]. She was able to stay out of foul trouble and stay in the game. I don’t think that she missed more than one shot when she was under the basket.”
Nails was not pleased with her team’s performance at the charity stripe, from which the Lady Panthers shot 50 percent (7-for-14), including 1-for-6 in the first half. Hokes Bluff converted 7-of-10 foul shots for the game.
“Part of those were one-and-ones, and you’ve got to connect when you go against a good team like Hokes Bluff,” she said. “If we made some of those earlier free throws, we may have been in a different situation at the end.”
Patterson led Southside with 12 points, followed by Hunt with 11 and Mallary Smith with 10.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t have been that close, but both teams played extremely hard and extremely hungry tonight,” said Shields.
Joining Johnson on the All-Tournament team were teammates Register, Ball and Black; Patterson, Smith and Ashcraft from Southside; Breia Little and Skylar Thompson from Glencoe; Alex Golden and Devin Holsonback from Sardis; and Tamia Timmons from West End.