Taking on an undefeated team in front of a packed-out Cage Center, the Darlington girls went about Thursday night’s championship game just as they had each of their two previous tournament games — with an attacking mentality that never wavered.
After seeing a 20-point lead reduced to just four, the Lady Tigers bounced back to earn a 53-37 victory in the Seven Hills Rotary/Rome News-Tribune Christmas Tournament championship game at Berry College.
The Gold Ball trophy is Darlington’s first since 2014 and fifth overall.
“We were very prepared,” Darlington coach Hazel Hall said. “I thought we had a great team effort. Everybody played really hard because this (Gold Ball) is a goal they had set. I was just really pleased with our effort all the way around.”
Rome (10-1) trailed 28-8 with just a few minutes remaining in the second quarter but fought back to make it 34-30 with 2:19 to go in the third frame.
Highlighting the furious Wolves stretch was a 7-0 individual run from all-tournament selection Amberly Brown and two big 3-pointers from Trenishia Adams.
With the Rome crowd as loud as they had been all night, Darlington (12-1) pushed forward with steady determination and refused to get flustered.
“We talked about this at practice yesterday,” Hall said. “That when things like that happen with us, we just keep playing. We don’t panic — none of that. We don’t get too high or too low. We just keep playing.”
It helped that the Tigers continued to put the ball in the hands of their best player.
Caroline Dingler scored a game-high 26 points and was named tournament MVP. The Bucknell University-signee went 7-of-8 at the free throw line in the fourth quarter alone to help put the game on ice.
“She wanted to win really badly and was willing to do whatever she had to do to make sure that it happened,” Hall said. “She got off to a great start early and that was big for her.”
Rome coach Jason Harris said the Wolves will need to reflect on their first loss of the season as a wake-up call.
“We will use this as a lesson learned,” Harris said. “That’s what we use losses as. Sometimes when you’re on a roll, on a winning streak, you take the little things for granted and that’s what we talked about. We’ve got to focus back on the details.”
Darlington jumped out to a quick 14-2 lead to start the game, with Dingler and Emmaline Ratledge leading the charge. In the second quarter, the Tigers put together a 12-0 run on the back of a turnover-forcing full court press to force a Rome timeout.
The Wolves were able to bite into the lead with a 6-0 mini-run right before halftime and continued to be the aggressor in the third quarter, with Adams and Brown combining to score the team’s first 14 points of the half. It looked like the Wolves were putting themselves right back in the game, but then the shots stopped falling.
Darlington took advantage, stringing together a 10-0 stretch that bridged the end of the third frame to the beginning of the fourth.
Adams ended with 15 points for Rome and Brown, who was limited after picking up her fourth foul early in the third period, had seven. Riley Jenkins had five.
Ratledge, who was also named to the all-tournament team, finished with 17 points. Olivia Adams was also selected to the all-tournament team and chipped in five. Jy Jy Johnson had three to round out the scorers for Darlington.