One way or the other, history was going to be made in the girl’s finals of the 60th Holiday Festival.
Either the defending champion, Darlington, was going to win back-to-back Gold Balls for the first time ever, or the Pepperell Lady Dragons, who are the last girls team in Floyd County to not win a Gold Ball, was going to win Lindale its first girls' gold ball and Pepperell High School's first since 1969.
The Lady Tigers let an early double-digit lead slip out of their hands, but a strong fourth quarter gave the Lady Tigers the victory and their second-straight Gold Ball.
“It feels great,” said Darlington coach Josh Hembree, “For us to come away with the victory and our second gold ball is huge for us.”
The Lady Tigers found it hard to describe the jubilation of winning the tournament for the second-straight season.
“There is no way to describe the feeling of holding the Gold Ball,” said Darlington senior Maggie Beth Atha. “Nothing can prepare for how this feels.”
Fellow Lady Tigers echoed the words spoken by their leader.
“"I can't describe it, and there's no other feeling like it,” said junior Rachel Simon. “It's just as good as last year, and maybe even better.”
“It's awesome. I am so blessed to be a part of such an amazing team,” said senior Sarah Manning. “We've worked really hard for this. It's a neat feeling, and I can't really describe it.”
Manning finished with eight points and Simon chipped in 14 points, and both of them were named to the All-Tournament team.
Atha was the driving force that took over the game and lead the Lady Tigers to another Gold Ball, and she had a game-high 28 points. She was also named most valuable player for the tournament.
When asked about Atha taking over the game, Hembree agreed.
“She wanted the ball in her hands, I wanted the ball in her hands, and her teammates wanted the ball in her hands,” Hembree said of Atha.
“She stepped up and did what a four-year starter and senior leader does, and she came through like she has time and time again.”
The points show how big a factor Atha was, but she wasn’t doing all that just for her. She was doing it for teammates and to leave her last festival as a player with the Gold Ball.
“It wasn't about me, it was for my team, and I know how much work everyone has put it. I know how much this meant to every single one of us,” said Atha. “I wasn't about to let my team down.”
While it was screams of joy and nothing but celebration for the Tigers, the Lady Dragons felt nothing but devastation and heartbreak.
It was Pepperell’s first loss of the season, and the Lady Dragons have to wait another year for a chance to win the first Gold Ball.
“They’re going to come off this loss with a bad taste in their mouth,” said Pepperell coach Judson Cox. “It didn't go our way, but the girls played hard.
“I don't have any regrets on how hard the girls played, but wish they would have played a little smarter,” added Judson.
“But that's how the ball rolls but these are easy mistakes to learn from, because when you make these kind of mistakes you remember them.”
The Lady Tigers started the game on a 13-2 run to not only grab early momentum, but to show the crowd and Pepperell who the defending champs were.
“That’s what we wanted,” said Hembree, “but then we had a lull but we persevered.
“We've had some adversity this year but these girls practice hard every day, get after one another, and they hold each other accountable,” said Hembree. “At the end of the day, that's what gave us the ability to go out there and persevere.”
The Lady Tigers have had some trouble this season with starting slow, but with the Gold Ball on the line the Lady Tigers had a little extra step in their game.
“Our whole team was really focused coming into this game, and we've had a problem coming out slow and having to dig ourselves out of a hole,” said Manning. “That really made us all feel confident.
While the Lady Tigers hit the lull, the Lady Dragons came right back and cut Darlington’s lead to 14-12 at the end of the first.
Darlington saw the lead slip away in the early part of the second quarter, but the Lady Tigers grabbed the lead back and never let Pepperell retake it.
Darlington maintained a two-point lead at the half and went to the locker room with a 26-24 lead.
“We came out and played really strong, then we didn't play so great in the second quarter,” said Simon, “but we came back hard again in the second half and played really strong.
Pepperell never let the deficit reach more than seven points in the third quarter, and the Lady Dragons came back and cut the lead to 43-40 as the third quarter ended.
The Lady Tigers came out early in the fourth quarter and grabbed the momentum, and never let it go despite some struggles at the free-throw line.
Darlington missed eight free throws in the fourth quarter, but Atha hit the last four free throws of the game to seal the victory.
“Our girls just fought and fought and it was not a pretty game,” said Hembree. “Both teams got after each other and a lot of scrapping out there.
“Ultimately we made some big plays down the stretch and we hit enough free throws down the stretch to win the game.”