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Last women standing -- Part 2

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh .....!

That's right .... quiet down critics.

Because the Terrell Academy girls basketball team is back in the GISA Final Four -- whether you like it or not.

And it's that message the Lady Eagles would like to deliver to all the haters, nay-sayers and so-called prognosticators who thought that -- after TAE won the last two state titles in Class A, then made the offseason jump to AA -- the run for the girls from Dawson was over.

Well, think again.

"We knew before last year's state tournament was over that the new classifications were already out and we were going to be making the jump next year. And all we heard was, 'Well ... guess you don't have to worry about them anymore,' " Terrell coach Keith Jones said Wednesday on the eve of today's Final Four showdown in Milledgeville against Christian Heritage at 4 p.m. "And now look at us. Here we are again. So to all those who thought that, I'd like to say thanks for the motivation."

And what's scarier than a team like TAE -- which has played for the state title every year but one since 2005 -- being motivated?

A team that's playing with one heck of a big chip on its shoulders.

"It's a bit of vindication for our program -- it really is -- to be where we are right now because we heard it from everywhere -- outside fans, people from other schools and even some people at our own school. But we're still two wins from our goal," said Jones, who is in his 12th year as the Lady Eagles' coach. "We already feel, in a way, like we've proved our point by just making it this far that we could still compete, despite making the jump. But we really, really want to win this thing. I think that will finally quiet down all the nay-sayers."

Criticism, of course, is nothing new to Jones, who faced heaps of it between 2005-2008 when his program was fast becoming one of the most dominant in all of Georgia -- but at the same time was starting to become known as one that couldn't close the deal. In 2005 and 2006, the Lady Eagles reached the state title game, but lost both times. In 2007, they were upset in the Elite 8 and in 2008 they made it back to the championship, only to fall short once again.

The monkey off Jones' back was officially lifted in 2009 when TAE won its first state title in girls hoops by beating Fullington, 42-39 for the title, then Terrell repeated the feat a year later -- ironically against that same Fullington program, 45-42.

But when the Lady Eagles walked off the court last season, there was an air of uncertainty as to when -- or if -- they'd ever be back.

That is, there was an air of uncertainty among everyone but them.

"Hearing all the talk, it just made us want to work that much harder, plus we knew we had everyone coming back," said Millie Foster, one of the team's three senior starters. "It really lit a fire under us."

The flames of that fire fanned into a burning desire almost immediately during the offseason to come back and repeat. The starting cast from that 2010 title team -- Foster, fellow seniors Marlee Locke and Carley Law, along with junior Alex Barfield and sophomore Maura Milliron -- worked tirelessly over the summer to get ready to defend their state crown by attending camps filled with Class AA teams, and Jones scheduled as many Class AAA and AA programs as possible for the coming year. They even enrolled in a summer camp at Georgia College & State, which is the site each year of the GISA Final Four, to gain added comfort with the backdrop of playing on the big stage -- because, naturally, they planned to be back.

"If we have one advantage, that's it. We've been to this gym before. And while it's bigger than what we're used to playing in, the bottom line is that after winning state there the last two years and playing in it over the summer, we're used to it now," Jones said.

Added Law: "We call it our home."

The Lady Eagles (22-5), the No. 1 seed out of Region 3, may need any advantage they can get against Christian Heritage, the No. 1 seed out of Region 4. Heritage, the No. 1 team in the AA Coaches Poll for most of the year, has scored more points than any team in the state tournament so far, routing Valwood, 69-46, in the first round, before sneaking by Curtis Baptist, 60-59, in the Elite 8. The Lady Lions are 24-1 and they also have one of the most dangerous players in all of GISA, Maggie Peeples, who averages 25 points a game and scored 31 against Valwood and 30 against Curtis Baptist.

"They're a very similar team to us in that they get out and run, press a lot and play man-to-man," Jones said. "And (Maggie) is a heck of a shooter. We watched them play their (Elite 8) game, and she's impressive."

Milliron, who Jones called the team's "stopper," gets the unenviable task of guarding Peeples today. But just like the mentality the Lady Eagles had about making the jump up to a new classification -- they're not afraid.

"I think we can stop her," Foster said. "She's a good player, but we have good players, too. We definitely have to play our best and I think we will. We've done our homework."

And while Christian Heritage's game plan may center around one player on most nights, Terrell's talent is deep and spread out.

Foster and Law average 12 points a game, second only to Barfield, who leads with 16 a game. Locke averages around 8 and Milliron handles most of the defensive assignments. Coming off the bench for Terrell with loads of success this season has been Alex's younger sophomore sister, Lauren, as well as the team's tallest player at 6-feet, 8th-grader Marilauren Farr, who finished with 11 points and five rebounds in TAE's opening-round win against The Heritage School, 53-38. The Lady Eagles then beat Brentwood, 38-18, in the Elite 8 to advance to where they are today.

Of course, just getting to this point was a lesson in against-the-odds basketball for the Lady Eagles. Of its five losses, Terrell was beaten twice by one team this year -- Region 3-AA rival Brookwood --but the Lady Eagles avenged that defeat in a big way in the Region 3-AA tournament championship, waxing Brookwod by 15 points for the crown.

"They're out now, and we're still in," Jones said of Brookwod, which lost in the Elite 8 to Gatewood, the team on the other side of the bracket from TAE and Christian Heritage that will play LaGrange in the other semifinal today. "So we're the lone survivor from our region and we're hoping to represent it well."

As for most of the rest of the GISA?

Well, Jones is pretty sure they're hoping the Lady Eagles fall flat.

"If I was a betting man, I'd bet that not a lot of people in Milledgeville will be pulling for us," he said. "They say everybody likes the underdog -- and considering we made this jump, we should be the underdog -- but I don't think a lot of folks like an underdog that's got 'Terrell' in its name."

Law said she just hopes the team's hometown fans from Dawson make the trip to Millledgeville today to support the team and drown out the boo-birds in what could turn out to be a hostile environment.

But even in they don't, Law likes the Lady Eagles' chances in the face of adversity. After all, they've met it head-on all season -- and don't plan on backing down now.

"(Regardless of what anyone says) -- how we couldn't make it, or whatever -- we're here, we're excited, we're pumped and we're ready to play," Law said. "We hope a lot of people come because -- as we've proved all year -- we feed off the energy, (whether it's good or bad).

"And now, we're ready to do it again."