Posed with the challenge of facing one of the state’s girls basketball powerhouses on Saturday, the Lady Phoenix followed a running theme of their season — despite facing early adversity, they battled back until the buzzer sounded.
And though the final result was not in their favor, coach Stephanie Caudell was proud of the effort shown in such a big game — a big game not experienced before.
“We had a great effort. It was a great atmosphere and a great experience. The girls learned a lot. I learned a lot being in that position, going that far,” Caudell said.
The exciting playoff run for the Lady Phoenix came to an end in their Final Four game on Saturday, falling to Johnson 64-52 at the Armstrong campus of Georgia Southern University.
“I think just watching this group grow and learn how to overcome adversity and then put it all together at the end,” she continued, sharing what she will remember most about this team. “I think that’s what you want at the end of the season is to be playing at your best.”
The Lady Phoenix lost to a team that now heads to its third straight Class 3A state championship game. Sonoraville, which saw a seven-game winning stream end, fell behind early and was unable to make up the deficit.
“We knew going in it was going to be a challenge because they’re a very good team — defending state champs,” Caudell said. “We didn’t get off to the start that we wanted to. They came out kind of wide open, on fire and got us behind. We dug a bit of a hole in the first quarter.”
The Atom Smashers (21-8) pulled away by using their quickness and speed to get layup after layup. Nineteen of SCJ 23 field goals were layups, including its first seven.
“We saw they played man to man (defense) and that was the game plan (to drive to the basket),” said SCJ coach Brandon Lindsey.
“They’re really good at getting to the basket. They’re good off the dribble. We knew we were going to have to keep them out of the lane and we didn’t do a very good job of that. and I don’t know that anybody has all season,” Caudell said. “We were a little nervous probably and that may have caused things that were a little uncharacteristic.”
J’mya Cutter scored 17 points, 14 in the first half, and Antalazia Baker added 13 to send SCJ to the title game against Hart County, a 62-58 winner over Beach High, on Thursday at 6 p.m. in Macon.
A fast start
Baker beat her defender off the dribble on the opening possession and Cutter followed with an easy layup on Johnson’s next possession.
The Atom Smashers ran off an 11-2 run during a period of about 3 ½ minutes to lead 13-4 and K’yla Hankerson’s 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first quarter gave Johnson a 21-8 advantage.
A Cutter layup during the first minute of the second quarter gave the Smashers their biggest lead of the half, 14, at 23-9.
Sonoraville fought back with a 9-0 run to get back into the game. Maliyah Parks had four points in the spurt, which forced Johnson to call a timeout.
“But I was really proud of the girls for hanging in there and fighting back and we made a game of it in the second quarter ... going into halftime,” Caudell said.
But Johnson’s Zoriah Mobley got a layup off a set play to make it 25-19.
Johnson led 31-22 at halftime and added a 10-2 spurt early in the third quarter to return to a double-digit lead, 41-27.
The Smashers led by 19, 64-45, in the final minute when the Phoenix closed the margin of defeat with three baskets while Johnson defenders tried not to foul.
“We were in the game for the most part,” Caudell said. “But, again they were a very good team, so we had to play better than we played to beat them.”
Parks finished the game with 20 points, leading the team.
“I thought she played outstanding and really was a good leader as far as on the offensive end and really does a lot for us,” Caudell said of Parks.
Abby Chambers added 12 and Alexa Geary had 10.
The Lady Phoenix will return four of its five starters next year, including Parks, a junior. Caudell said the experience of playing in the Final Four is great for the development of younger players on the team, who will now move up and gain more playing time.
“I think we can always get stronger, and I think as they mature, they’ll get stronger, “ Caudell said, adding that this experience provides them with greater preparation should the team reach this point of the season again. “I think we made huge strides this season as the season went along, as far as learning what our roles are and how we need to play”
Each season’s goal is to win the region championship, Caudell said, and achieving that this year is major accomplishment. Moving into the playoffs, she said the team was “extremely fortunate” to be able to host three home games.
“We play extremely well at home,” she said. “It was amazing. I’m extremely grateful for the support we’ve gotten this year, especially during this playoff run.”
The Lady Phoenix finish the year with a record of 23-9. But perhaps another big accomplishment of the season Caudell pointed to was the team only losing one time at home, which came early in the season against Ringgold, with several players just returning off injuries.
“We appreciate Phoenix Nation so much,” Caudell said.
Savannah Morning News correspondent Donald Heath contributed to this report.