Brent McNeal sat down behind the South Side bench in the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
His Lady Hawks basketball team had just defeated Livingston Academy 62-52 to claim the Class 3A state championship – the first in the program’s history.
While all-tournament honors were being announced, he buried his face in his hands to let the moment sink in.
“I’ve been coming up here every year watching this whether we made it here or not,” said McNeal, whose team finished second in the state a year ago. “But to be able to get that trophy and hold it up is special.”
The Lady Hawks led the entire game after sophomore Jaidynn Askins hit a free throw 48 seconds in to score the first point.
They would score six before the Lady Wildcats (29-7) scored their first points.
Once South Side built a five-point lead at 9-4 with 1:18 remaining in the first quarter, Livingston Academy never got closer on the scoreboard than four points a couple of times in the fourth quarter.
South Side’s three-headed monster of the scoreboard of seniors Ti’Mia Lawson (tournament MVP) and Albany Collins and Askins, a sophomore, scored 15, 18 and 19 points, respectively.
Lawson also had seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals, while Askins finished with nine rebounds, three blocks and five steals.
“We were here last year and didn’t win, so it feels good now to have the championship and the gold ball,” Lawson said.
The full-court pressure from South Side’s defense that’s been a trademark of the Lady Hawks this year was a weapon early on that helped South Side build its lead, frustrating the Lady Wildcats and not allowing them to get into a rhythm offensively.
But the Lady Wildcats never trailed by more than eight for long with their first serious push coming in the second quarter when they went on a 15-5 run to cut South Side’s lead from 13 to five at halftime.
“Livingston Academy is a good team, and every good team will make a run at some point,” McNeal said.
The Lady Hawks tried to stay calm during that run and regroup at intermission.
“We didn’t expect to blow anybody out this week,” Askins said. “So we had to stay focused and not worry about what was going on anywhere outside the court.”
Collins helped the Lady Hawks’ cause early in the third quarter when she hit a pair of 3-pointers to get their lead back to eight quickly.
While Livingston never fell behind and allowed South Side to coast to the championship, it was Collins’ 3-point shooting that often answered a big basket by the Lady Wildcats when it appeared they were about to make a run. She finished 4-for-4 in 3-point shooting.
“I haven’t had my best shooting week this week, but my teammates and coaches kept telling me to keep shooting, keep shooting,” Collins said.
Jakarrah Anderson, South Side’s fourth player to be named to the all-tournament team, came through with big defensive plays to clog the Lady Wildcats’ passing lanes and keep them from driving to the basket as often as they wanted to.
It was about midway through the third quarter when Livingston made its final serious push, pulling within four points at 32-28 with consecutive baskets.
And after a few possessions in which the teams traded baskets, Lawson hit four straight free throws, and Collins made a pair of baskets when she hit one lay-up, stole the ball coming up the court and hit another lay-up on the play to put the Lady Hawks back up by nine.
South Side got back up by double digits in the fourth quarter and led by as many as 13 in the final minute when the Lady Wildcats started fouling and put South Side on the free throw line.
The lead was big enough that McNeal could pull his starters in the final minute to take in the celebratory round of applause from the Hawk fans as they came off the court.
Brandon Shields, email@example.com