By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Holly Pond showed out in its semifinal Thursday at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Lauderdale County did not.
But both advanced to Saturday’s Class 3A state title tilt.
Seniors Rachel Finley (16 points and 11 rebounds) and Natasha Holcombe (14 points and 10 boards) hauled in double-doubles, and junior Meg Gambrill kicked in 14 points for the No. 3 Lady Broncos in a 63-37 rout of seventh-ranked Trinity not normally reserved for postseason play.
The Green and White (32-3) are on to the rematch of all rematches. They’ll return to Birmingham Saturday at 1 p.m. to take on the top-ranked Lady Tigers (37-0), who scraped by No. 2 Straughn 45-23 earlier in the evening.
“If someone had told me seven years ago when I started coaching this girls program that we’d have an opportunity to play in back-to-back state championship games, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Holly Pond’s Scott Adams, who’s making his third Final 48 appearance. “I’ve been blessed with great parents and great kids that work hard and believe in what we’re trying to do. I don’t deserve this, and I’m humbled by it.”
The Broncos didn’t waste any time ensuring their warmup for the finale was devoid of all drama.
Holcombe, Finley and Gambrill helped build an 18-6 advantage by the end of the first quarter, and Kaitlyn Stephens sank a 3-pointer shortly before the halftime buzzer to put the Green and White up 39-14 at the break.
The third frame was rank and file as well, with Finley, Holcombe and Stephens providing the highlights on a trio of treys.
Stephens was good for the two 3’s, while senior Taylor Rowell was as helpful as ever with nine assists and four points. Sophomore Melissa Clingman clawed for five points, and freshmen Ruth Horton and Adair Gillilan contributed three and one, respectively, off the bench.
Leeanne Phillips was Trinity’s only player in double figures with 13 points. The Wildcats (26-3) shot a shade less than 29 percent from the field compared to Holly Pond’s near-46-percent mark.
The minute Adams and Co. settled into their seats at the postgame press conference, they were peppered by questions about Lauderdale County, which has shown signs of vulnerability in each of its last two games.
The two-time defending champs leaned on a last-second 3-pointer in overtime to move past Madison Academy in the Northwest Regional decider and countered an iffy offensive outing with exceptionally solid D to get by Straughn.
The Tigers were 17 of 66 (26 percent) from the field, 2 of 16 (13 percent) from behind the arc and 9 of 17 (53 percent) at the charity stripe on Thursday.
Despite those so-so stats, it’d be silly for anyone not to take Lauderdale County seriously. The Lady Tigers are riding a 43-game win streak dating back to 2013 and have the chance to set records Saturday for wins in a season and most titles in state history. They’re currently tied at 37 with Paint Rock Valley for the former and at 10 with R.C. Hatch’s boys for the latter.
Adams joked the key to beating a program with that kind of history will be “a lot of prayer.”
“If I could, I would go talk to coach (Brant) Llewelyn right now and say, ‘Hey, you’ve had your share. Could you help us out a little bit?’” the coach said with just the right touch of comedic timing. “But we know that we’re going to have to earn it. We have a lot of respect, not fear, but great respect. I have no doubt with these girls that they will go out and absolutely play their best and let the results take care of themselves.”
Lauderdale County, which topped Holly Pond 59-41 in last year’s season-ending showdown, is led by senior Chatara Cox, the Final 48 MVP in 2012 and 2013. Of course, there’s also the Wallen triplets — Emma, Ivy and Ella — as well as 6-foot-2 center Makayla Liles, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds versus Straughn.
“They don’t put out anybody on the floor that can’t play basketball and that doesn’t have confidence,” Adams said. “But we know we’ve got a good team ourselves. I’m so proud of the fact I’m going to get to take the floor with this group one more time.”
The Broncos aren’t undefeated — their losses were to 4A title contender Oneonta, 6A Austin and Madison Academy — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had a season to remember themselves. The Green and White enter the championship clash with 12 wins in a row, a continually increasing program-best number of victories and, most importantly, a shot to claim the school’s first-ever state crown.
“At this point, it’s the last game. You really don’t have anything to lose,” Finley said. “You either win it all or get second best. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got and hope that it’s good enough.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.