Dateline: Clarkston, Ga: Both squads wrote this latest chapter in their storied rivalry with the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. While the game that often lacked the textbook execution demanded by purists, it more than delivered in terms of heart stopping action, whiplash inducing plot twists, and players preternaturally imposing their will on the contest. No spectator left the gymnasium feeling short changed, and these players and coaches will reminisce about this contest for decades to come.
The game began innocuously enough with the Lady Cougars taking advantage of off ball movement to rack up four early points. Atlanta Area School’s perennial All Star standout Lexi Stroothers blanked on her first two looks, perhaps lulling some observers into a false sense of complacency. Just then, faster than you can say fast break, the volume scoring guard outraced the field for a fast break, and followed soon after with a three point harpoon. Buoyed by their big gun’s mini run, the home town Lady Panthers upped their game. Not to be outdone, Alyssa Briggs answered the call, matching her rival point for point over the course of the first frame, as both players tallied 9. An offensive rebound, tip in by senior Anika Helm provided TCS with a narrow 11 – 9 margin at the close of the first eight minutes.
Both teams opened the offensive spigots for the second period, with both teams often pressing to set up a frenetic pace. Although nothing seemed to fall from the outside for the Lady Cougars, Briggs kept forcing the issue by penetrating into the lane, while Helm added six huge second quarter points on the strength of her inside play. However, the potent Lady Cougar duo could not overcome the hard charging Stroothers, who rang up 10 points on the quarter, throwing in everything from a three point bomb, to a foul shot, to twisting fast break finishes. Stroothers also benefited from timely buckets from her teammates to grab a 25 – 23 lead going into the half.
Using the rest break to tweak defensive assignments and tactics, the Lady Cougars took to the hardwoods determined to establish some separation from their hostesses. Incessant pressing paid dividends as the Cougars generated turnovers, converting many into fast break lay-ups. While Briggs remained the offensive mainstay, tallying 10 points in the third frame, three other teammates also jumped into the scoring column. On the other side of the court, Stoothers countered with 7, but came up empty on all of her trips to the foul line. The Lady Cougars pushed their lead to six points on two occasions but settled for five point cushion as the final quarter began.
Realizing that the Panthers would bring everything to bear for the final eight minutes, the Lady Cougars steeled themselves for the final push. Stroothers went for broke, using her speed to blitz her way to 11 sizzling points over the final minutes. Like heavyweight boxers, the two teams traded body blows as the lead see-sawed as the game drove to the conclusion. Again Briggs provided an anchor for her team, scoring six points of her own by throwing all caution to the wind a driving deep into the paint for some scintillating finishes under the rim. Then, with just over three minutes left, a potentially disastrous turn of affairs threatened to short circuit the visitor’s push, Briggs found herself whistled up for a highly controversial fifth and final foul that exiled her to the bench. Without their best offensive weapon now disqualified, the Lady Cougars sized up the situation and decided to step up. Celeste Jeoffroy banged her way to a bucket to preserve the lead, and also came up with an important open court steal to dispel yet another Lady Panther fast break. Then the Panthers found themselves gob smacked with a whistle of their own, as Lexi Stoothers picked up a fifth infraction with only 1:44 left on the clock. At this point Cottage held the narrowest of two point margins, as Atlanta Area School advanced with the ball. Guard Mosley drew a foul underneath the hoop and canned her only two points of the game, forcing the tie. Cottage attempted to activate the offensive for a final possession to put the game away, when a miscue resulted in ASD regaining possession. As ASD worked the ball around, frontcourt phenom Najah Love found herself at the top of the key, closely guarded by junior Ana Mills. Love hesitated, began to take a jab step, and made the fatal mistake of misjudging the lightning quick hand speed of her defender. Faster than you can say “pick pocket,” or “Maria Kzezeck,” Mills slapped the partially exposed ball with the palm of her hand. The ball slipped out, and started to roll out behind Love. Wasting no time, Mills sprinted to the ball, controlled it, and broke for the basket. A white jersey defender kept pace, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Now approaching the foul line right extended, Mills managed to turn the corner and secure a step of separation. It was enough as Mills banked home the shot to record Cottage’s 52nd and 53rd points of the game. With a little over four second left, but with no time outs, the home team succeeded in getting the ball in play, but could not generate anything to produce an open look at the hoop. Time expired, the bench cleared, and the Lady Cougars have not come down to earth yet!
In such a close contest where every point and every play imposed upon the outcome, the Lady Cougar bench provided some desperately needed relief. Freshmen Julia McCauley saw floor time during both halves, securing 3 rebounds. When Briggs picked up her final foul, McCauley answered the call to close out the game. Eighth grader Hannah Katz entered the game during the second period when the pace clearly began to impact the TCS frontcourt. Katz ran the floor effectively and continued to provide the defensive pressure needed against Love, Haynes Johnson and the AAS frontcourt. Finely Love did not score on this evening, but bossed her way to 6 rebounds. One fourth quarter bound came beneath the basket, earning the ninth grade guard a trip to the foul line. Love also gained credit for three steals.
Lillian Travis returned to the starting lineup. Her biggest contribution in this razor thin game involved her third quarter bucket, a rare two pointer for this bombardier. Travis also stepped up in the passing game, threading the needle to set up Anika Helm in the post in a particularly satisfying second quarter sequence.
Anika Helm and Celeste Jeoffroy both gave the Lady Cougars the margin needed in this most tense game. Jeoffroy scored 2, a big fourth quarter bucket when her team needed it the most. Jeoffroy also laid claim to 7 rebounds (2 offensive), grabbed three steals, and showed tremendous versatility in guarding a number of different position players. Helm came alive with 10 points, all of them in the paint. Most of these scores came after offensive rebounds (5), which matched her defensive total as well. Helm also forced 3 steals, assisted a Mills score, and threw back 2 shots with emphatic force.
Point forward Ana Mills played a relatively quite offensive game through the first half, but came alive at the right moment with her highlight reel, game saving play to steal the victory. She pulled in 5 rebounds, passed for an assist, gathered a steal, and pumped in 6 points, with the biggest one of all coming at the end!
Alyssa Briggs jumped out with one of greatest stat lines in the history of Lady Cougars basketball. In a game where every point counted, Briggs stepped up with a career high 31 points, marking the first thirty point outburst since Dinarah Rothman last patrolled the hardwoods for the purple and white. She also stole 5 balls, dished for two assists, and grabbed 20 (yes count them. . .20) rebounds!
What a game. . .What a finish!