Photo: Sardis High’s Saydi Rutledge (right) fires a pass over Ramsay’s Naomi Smitherman during the Lady Lions’ 39-38 victory in the Class 5A Northeast Regional Tournament basketball semifinals last Friday (Feb. 18) at Jacksonville State. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Caroline Johnson’s premonition last Friday (Feb. 18) was right on the money.
With the score tied at 35-35 in the final minute of the Class 5A Northeast Regional semifinals at Jacksonville State, the Sardis High junior knocked down her third 3-point basket of the game, giving the Lady Lions some much-needed breathing room with 21 seconds remaining.
“I felt like it was going in,” said Johnson, who scored all of her team-high 11 points during the game’s final six minutes. “I stepped back and was like, ‘Well I want to shoot now.’ It was there, and I shot it.”
Ramsay missed a 3-point attempt on the ensuing possession, and Sardis’ Kytha Edwards grabbed the rebound. She passed to Belle Trammell, who was immediately fouled.
With the Lady Lions (27-7) in the double bonus, Trammell missed her first attempt but connected on the second. That free throw was crucial, because with one second on the clock, Naomi Smitherman canned a 3-pointer.
“We ran that play for Caroline, and she wasn’t going to let anyone else shoot it,” said Sardis head coach Cullom. “We’ve got five or six good shooters, and they’ve all got the green light. Caroline was a little tore up at halftime, because she’s a super competitor, and I told her that the second half might be her half.”
The 39-38 victory sent Sardis to the program’s first-ever regional final. The Lady Lions face Sand Mountain neighbor Guntersville on Tuesday, Feb. 22, with the winner advancing to the Elite Eight state tournament next week in Birmingham.
Cullom credited the Lady Lions’ perimeter defense as the key factor in the game, as Sardis held the Lady Rams to 6.7 percent (1 for 15) from 3-point range. Ramsay (19-6) shot 29 percent (16 for 55) overall.
“If [Ramsay] was going to beat us, they were going to beat us on the three-point line,” he said. “I told them that it probably was going to be hard to win if [Ramsay] made six or seven 3’s. Our best chance was to limit [Smitherman’s] touches as much as possible and get her frustrated. Every time [Ramsay] drove [the lane] somebody stepped in and took a charge. We got [Ramsay] in foul trouble a little bit, so those were huge plays.
Trammell, Jayda Lacks and Saydi Rutledge each scored eight points. Edwards cleared seven rebounds, followed by Kaylen Wallace with six and Lacks with four. Trammell and Edwards each had four assists, while Wallace had four blocks. Edwards also had three steals.
Kei’lley Brown paced Ramsay with 19 points, followed by Smitherman with 11.
“It was very nerve wracking, but I knew that we could handle this environment,” said Trammell. “We knew that it would be challenging, but like we’ve been saying all week, it wasn’t anything that we couldn’t handle.”
Both teams’ offenses struggled during the first half. The Lady Rams took an early 6-2 lead before Rutledge’s three-pointer tied it at 8-8 late in the first period.
It was more of the same during the second frame, with the teams combining for four field goals. But Trammell and Rutledge both went 2-for-2 at the foul line in the latter half of the quarter, and Rutledge’s buzzer-beating trey sent the Lady Lions into halftime up 17-12.
“Saydi came out and made a couple [of shots] for us in the first half and got us going,” said Cullom. “It’s very hard to get a shot off against Ramsay, [because] they’re very fast and athletic and tip a lot of passes, so we knew it was going to be a grind.”
Respective baskets from Trammell and Lacks early in the second half provided Sardis with a seven-point cushion, but the Lady Lions went scoreless over the last six minutes of the third.
Not helping matters was Trammell being whistled for her fourth personal foul at the 3:30 mark. She did not return until midway through the fourth quarter.
“Belle got into a little bit of foul trouble, and obviously we’re a different team when she’s out there,” said Cullom. “Belle’s the definition of a point guard; she doesn’t care how many points she scores; she really likes to pass it, and [her teammates] rely on her a lot. She does her job very well and makes us a lot better.”
The senior point guard’s absence was a factor in Ramsay’s subsequent 11-0 run that made it 25-21 in favor of the Lady Rams early in the fourth.
But Johnson soon found her range, scoring eight of the next 10 Sardis points. Brown countered with six straight points, however, and Smitherman’s layup with 32 seconds left knotted the game at 35-35.
That set the stage for Johnson’s clutch 3-pointer and Trammell’s late free throw, which extended the Lady Lions’ record-setting season for at least one more game.
“We played not to lose against Fairview (in Sardis’ 32-21 subregional win on February 14) but today we came out to win the game,” said Cullom. “These girls keep stepping up in big games.”
Cullom acknowledged the impact of the Sardis student section.
“For a 9 a.m. game, the crowd was amazing. They need to get tremendous credit for this win, too. They’ve packed every house we’ve been too [over] the past two weeks.”