Lady Panthers dethrone Guntersville in regional semifinals


Photo: Southside’s Jovi Marble (right) battle for a loose ball with Guntersville’s Lainie Phillips during the Lady Panthers’ 36-33 victory in the Northeast Regional Tournament Class 5A semifinals on February 17 at Jacksonville State. Chris McCarthy/Messenger) 

By Chris McCarthy/Publisher/Editor

Southside High girls basketball coach Justin Bowen acknowledged that his team’s top priority going into last Friday’s Northeast Regional Tournament Class 5A semifinal against top-ranked and defending state champion Guntersville was allowing Olivia Vandergrift as little room as possible to operate.
Mission accomplished.
Thanks to a stifling defensive effort by Southside, the Lady Wildcats’ standout senior guard shot 15 percent for the game (3-for-21), including 0-for-8 from three-point range. Vandergrift was also hampered by foul trouble, being whistled for her third foul shortly before halftime and her fourth with 3:17 left in the third quarter.
In a nip-and-tuck game fourth quarter during which the lead changed hands seven times, Graceanne Rose’s two free throws with 19 seconds remaining held up as the winning points in the Lady Panthers’ 36-33 victory at Jacksonville State.
For the first time in school history, Southside advanced to the regionals finals, where Southside will face Arab on Wednesday at 9 a.m. for the right to advance to next week’s state tournament in Birmingham.
“Olivia is an amazing player who can hit some many different types of shots,” said Bowen. “I knew if we not necessarily stop her but were able to slow her down, we’d have a chance to win. Our game plan was for some of the other [Guntersville] girls hit shots that maybe they hadn’t made many of. [Guntersville] didn’t even come out to shoot before the second half, so I told our girls that if we kept it up on defense, we we’re about to win the game.”
Southside maintained the lead from late in the first period until midway through the third quarter, when a pair of free throws by Tazi Harris made it 17-16 in favor of Guntersville. A layup from Laylah Davis and a three-pointer by Madison Shaw gave the Lady Panthers a 23-21 advantage before Brylee Hill’s trey with 26 seconds left restored the Guntersville lead at 24-23. Harris scored all 13 of her team-high 13 points in the second half.
Following a timeout, Southside worked the third-quarter clock down to to the final few seconds, when a put-back by Davis put the Lady Panthers ahead 25-24.
Neither team shot well from the field during the final frame, with Southside going 2-for-7 and Guntersville 3 for 13. But the Lady Panthers visited the charity stripe 10 times to Guntersville’s three appearances.
The game went down to the wire. Vandergrift’s basket with 34 seconds left made it 33-32 in favor of the Lady Wildcats, leading Bowen to use his final timeout. Rose’s drive to the basket on the ensuing possession resulted in a foul against Guntersville, and Rose knocked down both attempts for a one-point Southside lead.
Guntersville had 17 seconds to work with, but the Lady Wildcats turned the ball over. Guntersville was forced to foul in order to regain possession, and Davis and Mallory Brooks both converted a free throw over the final seven seconds to secure the win.
For the game, Guntersville shot 19 percent (12-for-64) overall from the field and nine percent (2-for-23) from downtown.
“We were able to contest the ‘3,’ which [Guntersville ] likes to live off of,” said Bowen.
Davis, who transferred in from Panama City, Fla., prior to this season, was a big factor off the bench for Southside. She scored all nine of her points in the second half, including the Lady Panthers’ only two field goals of the fourth quarter.
“There’s been some games where [Laylah] hasn’t played a ton, but I knew that she would be a mismatch if we man-to-man matchup today,” said Bowen. “She stepped up in a big way. She’s been a huge addition for us.”
Shaw got Southside rolling in the early going, scoring eight of her team-high 16 points in the opening quarter for a 10-7 Southside lead. The teams combined for two field goals during the second frame, Rose for Southside and Vandergrift for Guntersville. Rose and Shaw each canned a free throw to provide the Lady Panthers with a 14-11 lead at halftime.
Bowen dismissed the “David vs. Goliath” storyline in the days leading up to the game.
“We didn’t buy into any part of that. All of the girls on our team knew that we deserved to be on this floor and that we could play with [Guntersville]. We knew that we were a formidable opponent. I know that Guntersville has several girls who work really hard, but I’ve got 15 of them. Every one of my girls work their tail off every day, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that us playing with confidence was the (difference) in this game.”
“We know we we a talented group and we put in the hard work,” said Rose. “We knew that we’d match up well [with Guntersville]. We had the mindset of, ‘W’eve been working so hard for lo long, so we can’t give up now.’ The job’s not done yet.”
“Like coach said, I think the big difference (in the game) was that we’re all very talented, and on [Guntersville’s] end, they have one or two good players,” said Shaw. “So I think that separated us in having confidence in each other and being able to handle that situation. With the amount of worked we’ve had to put in this season, to know that we’re here, it’s all been worth it.”
“We came in here with the mentality that it was win or go home,” said Davis. “So we put everything out there on the floor. Coach [Bowen] has really built us up mentally.”
Bowen pointed you that he had been waiting for this game since he was hired last year.
“If [Guntersville] did their job and we did ours, I knew this was going to be the matchup [at regionals]. We were doing everything we could to prepare for this game months ago. There were multiple teams we played during the regular season that I knew were going to be hard for us to win, but I also knew that we’d be okay of we took the lessons we learned for those games and put them into effect this one today.
“Something I’ve preached on all year long is just how hard these girls work. To see all of that hard work pay off is the biggest thing, and I’m so proud and so appreciative of every one of them. From the first day of workouts last year, we’ve talked about not just going into the season with the idea of just winning an area championship or having a winning record. We want to win the whole thing.”

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