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February 9, 2014

No. 2 Devils upset by Valdosta

Girls pull out big win

VALDOSTA — The Tift County Blue Devils saw the abrupt end of their long winning streak Saturday night. The Devils, considered to be the No. 2 team in Class AAAAAA by Score Atlanta and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and winners of 14 straight contests, fell to the Valdosta Wildcats, 65-51. The news was better in the opening game, when the Lady Devils were able to pull out a 45-42 win.

This was the final game of the regular season for the squads. The region tournament starts tomorrow for the girls at Brunswick, with the boys not playing until Thursday, as they are the top seeded team, according to region standings published by the GHSA.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Tift was that Valdosta led for over three quarters. A pair of Preston Horne baskets and a free throw put them up 5-0 in the first two minutes, but their opponents quickly got themselves into the game. It was tied at 16 with 45 seconds to go in the 1st after another Horne score, but when Justin Williams hit a pair of charity shots to go up 18-16, the 'Cats would not trail.

The Devils hung around for all of the 2nd and into the 3rd, but that is when Rashad Lewis found his groove. Like in Tifton, Lewis was kept silent for the 1st half, but would explode after intermission. He hit two consecutive shots from behind the arc that turned a 35-32 game into a 41-32 one.

There was a glimmer of hope near the end of the 3rd. Down nine in the waning seconds, Valdosta missed a shot. The rebound looked to be going the other way, but they never could totally secure it. The ball went to a Wildcat and Khalil McClain was fouled with three seconds to go. He hit both free throws. The Devils were down 50-39 going into the 4th.

Tadric Jackson had put the team on his shoulders in the 3rd quarter, but his offense was the only scoring the team could do. All 11 points were his and he had a streak of 15 straight Tift County points before Ladarius Stewart hit a runner to start the 4th.

Lewis, though, was determined to make sure his team stayed on top and he had a points streak of his own. During the stretch run in final eight minutes, he had 11 of their 15 points. Jackson had 5, but with the Devils cold from both the floor and the free throw line, Valdosta put the game away.

Jackson had 24 points to lead the Blue Devils. Horne scored 11 and D.J. Bryant contributed 9. Lewis, who had only 3 points at halftime, finished with 23.

If Julie Conner was ever able to breathe easy during Saturday's game, that breath didn't come until 2.4 seconds were left. That happened` when the Lady Wildcats, down by a point, lost the ball out of bounds and her Lady Devils had possession.

Forced to foul, Valdosta chose the wrong target, as Brecklyn Greene sank both free shots to put them up 45-42. Needing a miracle with only 1.3 ticks left, the Lady 'Cats were not able to even attempt a shot.

The final period saw the Lady Devils enter with a four point lead and quickly make it six on a Greene jumper. Then the home team was able to mount a comeback, with a layup from Laquesha Newkirk that tied the game at 38. Valdosta would take a 42-38 lead with 3:37 remaining on a Tiaera Phillips free throw.

Shockingly, that would turn into their last points scored. Greene hit both ends of a 1-and-1 and with only 90 seconds remaining, Alexis Johnson fed Dail Adaway in the lane for a short basket to tie it.

Valdosta could not break the tie when they missed a 1-and-1, but Johnson could when she was fouled with 23 seconds left. She only hit one of her bonus shots, enough to give them a shaky lead until the turnover.

Johnson showed her mettle early. Having already scored four in the 1st quarter, she drove down the left side as the period drew to a close. A Lady Wildcat was able to swat the ball, but she retained possession and it enabled her to get enough distance between the defender to hit a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. They led, 16-11, after one.

The lead remained five at halftime — 29-24 — as Johnson and Murrell each hit 3-pointers and Tatianya Smith found a groove at the free throw line. Valdosta cut into it by a point in the 3rd and trailed by four going into the 4th.

Johnson led with 13 points. Greene joined her in double digits with 10. Murrell and Smith each had 6.

Valdosta received a blow early in the 2nd when Desinee Arnold injured a knee, which kept her out of the rest of the game. She had two points at the time of her injury. Phillips led with 9.

In brackets released Saturday night, the Lady Devils will be the No. 4 seed going into the region tourney. They will play the No. 5, Valdosta, at 4 p.m. today. The winner of the game advances to the state tournament and will play further games this week.

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