ALBANY -- Those region championships are so hard to come by. So anytime you when one, it's reason to celebrate.
Deerfield-Windsor's girls were doing just that Saturday night after fighting off a hard-charging Tiftarea team, 41-36, to capture the GISA Region 3-AAA girls championship at Darton College.
"It felt good because last year was such a disappointment," said Lady Knights' junior Miranda Phillips, who led Deerfield with 11 points Saturday after experiencing a loss in the region title game last year. "We knew Tiftarea would come out and play hard because they've been playing really good lately."
Deerfield's reward for winning the region title and being the No. 1 seed in the GISA Class AAA girls state playoffs will be a first-round game against Region 4-AAA No. 4 John Milledge Academy, which also happens to be the host of the first-round games.
"Unfortunately it's at their gym," said DWS head coach Ty Kinslow, who has now won three of the last four Region 3-AAA titles. "I guess that's what we get for winning the region. That's OK. You're going to have a little adversity to get to the Final Four."
Deerfield (20-5) hopes Wednesday's 7 p.m. game in Milledgeville is the first of two trips there in the next two weeks. The GISA Final Four is also held in Milledgeville at Georgia College and State University's Centennial Center.
"It will be a good test for us to see if we can keep our composure," DWS junior Courtney Kelson said of the first-round game in hostile territory.
The Lady Knights, winners of 11 of the last 12 games, used a little fourth-quarter magic to win the region championship Saturday after Tiftarea (17-7) rallied from down 10 in the first half to tie the game at 29-29 on Ali Rippy's layup with 6:18 to play.
"(We thought) just play smart and make sure we don't do anything that will cost us," said Kelson, who scored nine points and hit a 3 in the third quarter that gave the Lady Knights a 29-22 lead before Tiftarea ran off seven straight points.
Heather Lash hit a jumper with 5:50 to play to give the lead back to Deerfield, starting an 8-0 run that sealed the championship. Phillips and senior Sarah Shellhaas connected on three-point plays during the run.
"We knew it was going to be a real battle," said Kinslow, who had predicted a hard-fought game after beating the Lady Panthers by 27 and 17 in the regular season. "With (Shamonica) Fowler and (Courtney) Albritton, they've got two of the best players in the region.
They kept getting better and better all year."
Fowler scored 11 points in the first half, but was held to just two in the second half. She led Tiftarea with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Albritton, who is signed to play softball at Valdosta State next year, scored seven and hit the only three of the night for the Lady Panthers with three seconds to play. Tiftarea, the No. 2 seed from Region 3-AAA, will play Region 4-AAA No. 3 seed Bulloch Academy at 4 p.m. Wednesday at JMA.
Shellhaas was saddled with three fouls in the first half but managed to score 10 and pick up eight boards in the win. Candace Cosby had three first-half steals as the Lady Knights' pressure defense helped build a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, enough to send Deerfield home with a shiny new trophy after heartbreak in the region championship a season ago in Americus.
"People don't realize how tough it is to win (region championships)," Kinslow said. "They are special. The girls are so excited."