Tift County Blue Devils coach Eric Holland said he made a deal with girls coach Julie Conner on Friday before the two Region 1-AAAAAA championship games were played. “You take of business and we’ll take care of business, too,” he recounted. Conner held up her end of the deal, defeating the Valdosta Lady Wildcats, 57-50, and 90 minutes later, the Devils knocked off the Brunswick Pirates, 88-72.
It was sweet revenge for the Lady Devils.
Valdosta had been the thorn in their side all season. It was Valdosta who broke the Lady Devils’ 15-game winning streak in January, with a 38-46 victory in Tifton. Valdosta accounted for two of their three region losses, including the regular season finale, 56-42 on the road. Friday, they not only had the Lady Cats again in the region championship, but they had them at Valdosta High.
It was Tift who set the pace early. Alexis Johnson got things going with a basket a minute into the contest and using a halfcourt press to confuse Valdosta, they were off to an 8-2 lead. The home team quickly tied things up, but Johnson gave her squad the lead back in the final minute of the first quarter, 10-8.
The Lady Cats would be the ones who started the second with a bang. They had the lead with a three-pointer to open the quarter. Brakia Bateman responded to make it 12-11, but Tift was stuck trying to play catch-up for the first half of the second period. Bateman’s free throws would tie it at 16 at 4:02 and the offense started to roll. Two minutes later, a bucket by Johnson made it a 10-point game, 27-17 and Valdosta could only muster a single field goal in retaliation, leaving it 27-19 at the break.
The start of the second half was more of the same, capped by an intentional foul called on Valdosta’s KaNeshia Kimbrough at 5:23. Johnson sank both free throws and it was a 41-25 game. It looked as if it was the start of a blowout, but the Lady Cats found their legs. Two minutes later, it was a seven-point game and Lady Devils assistant Eric Willis had been whistled for a technical foul. The lead was cut to six when Destiny Covert made one of the two foul shots, but they could do no further damage. Dail Adaway pushed it back to eight as Tift’s first points in five minutes closed out the period, making it a 43-35 contest going into the fourth quarter.
The final stanza would be a cat-and-mouse battle, Valdosta taking small chunks out of the lead and the Lady Devils pushing it back. The Lady Wildcats were as close as four points at 2:16 when Stormm Phillips made a shot and they had a chance to take a bigger bite when Tift came up empty on their end. But on the return trip up the floor, Dee Dee DeShazer stole the ball and passed it ahead to Johnson, who was fouled. She made the first bonus shot to make it 52-47 to give them some breathing room and Valdosta’s attempts to square the game saw three of their starters foul out.
Down by five, their last chance rejected, Staceyanna Murrell grabbed the rebound and threw a long outlet pass to DeShazer. Her lay-up with five seconds on the clock closed out the game and started the celebration.
“I can’t describe the feeling of joy,” said Conner. “This is so awesome.”
Johnson led the team with 19 points. DeShazer finished with 15 and Bateman 11. The Lady Devils are now 21-6.
One part of business carried out and Holland had to complete his end of the deal. A Donell Tuff basket with only 90 seconds elapsed made it an 8-0 lead and Brunswick’s attempts to fly with the Devils made it only worse. They spent most of the first quarter deep in a hole, punctuated by Tadric Jackson’s falling, off-balance jumper at the horn to give Tift a 22-12 lead.
The Pirates would abandon their early gameplan and moved on to one based on speed, which suited their offense better and despite a big size difference, gave the Devils a few fits in the second. They would close it to five points with three minutes to go in the half, but Tift was soon back in the driver’s seat and Brunswick could only watch and Brannen Greene and Jackson took over. Greene scored six in the final two minutes and had 23 points total at halftime and the Devils had a 43-34 lead.
Brunswick would nearly match points with Tift — 19 to 21 — in the third but were unable to make any dent in the lead. They seemed to momentarily make progress, cutting it to seven, but were answered by back-to-back threes from D.J. Bryant and Greene and it was 64-53 with only one quarter to go.
Tift would start the fourth on the roll as Greene led off with a three and Jackson a dunk. The offense never let up and the Bucs could not get the lead below 10 points and the Blue Devils were everywhere. Greene put up 10 more points in the quarter and Holland’s title was closed out by a Christopher Gravitt bucket and an 88-72 verdict.
Two Blue Devils finished with over 20 points, Greene (36) and Jackson (22). Tuff scored 12.
The Devils will go in to the state tournament with a 23-4 record. Only one loss has been at the hands of a Georgia school, a 88-83 loss to Coffee in January.
This was the second time in three seasons that both Tift schools swept the region championships.
Campbell will be the next opponent for the Lady Devils. They lost their consolation game against Hillgrove, 70-57. The boys play McEachern,who defeated Campbell, 80-78, in five overtimes. Both games will be in Tifton. Game time has yest to be determined.