GISA CLASS A GIRLS FINAL FOUR: Lady Wildcats claw way to first-ever state title game

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Seems like Moses and the Westwood girls basketball team, which waited 40 years to get to the Final Four, were on the same timetable.

And wouldn't you know it, they both landed in the same place.

The Promise Land.

Well at least that's what it feels like for coach Jenni Smith's No. 2-seeded Westwood kids, who found a way to beat No. 1 David Emanuel, 35-30, on Thursday afternoon at Georgia College and State University to advance to their first state title game in the school's history.

"I'm shaking, just shaking I'm so excited,'' said Miller Singleton, who still had tears in her eyes moments after the win. "I will never forget this. When I'm 80 years old I will remember this.''

Singleton led the Lady Wildcats with 13 points, four steals and some steel nerves.

Well, all of the Westwood kids showed nerve and poise -- and the kind of character it always seems to take to wrestle away this kind of gutsy win.

David Emanuel, a regular in the Final Four, stormed back with a pair of back-to-back 3s to take a 24-23 lead into the fourth quarter after the Lady Wildcats led after the first two.

It might have taken Westwood four decades to get here, but the kids from Camilla knew just what to do when they arrived. They took over in the fourth quarter -- when it counted most.

Morgan Singleton (right, Miller's little sister), an eighth-grader who left the game in the third with a bad ankle, returned in the fourth and hit two big free throws with 7:24 left in the game to give Westwood a 25-24 lead.

That's all it took to turn this one back to Westwood, where they live on defense.

"That's our bread and butter,'' Miller Singleton said.

The Lady Wildcats (18-9) slammed the door, allowing DEA only two baskets from the field in the fourth quarter, and both came after Westwood had taken control of the game with an 8-1 run to start it off.

Sydnee Smith, the coach's daughter, made back-to-back steals and hit a drive with 5:55 left to lift Westwood to a 27-25 lead, and Virginia Vereen hit the biggest 3 of her life, busting the net with 5:23 left to give Westwood a 30-25 lead.

Sydnee, who made five steals and seven points, led the defense all afternoon. She helped ignite that last-quarter push.

"I think the difference in the game was that we turned up our hustle and our intensity and found another level of intensity in the fourth quarter,'' she said. "We just wanted it that much.''

Vereen, Westwood's slick 5-foot-9 post, finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but no one will ever forget that 3. Vereen, who is the best 3-point shooter on the team, sure won't.

"I haven't been making my 3s,'' Vereen said. "But on that one I wasn't thinking about everything else. I was just thinking about making that shot.''

She did.

"That was a clutch shot,'' Miller Singleton said. "But we knew she would make it. Clutch is Virginia's middle name.''

They were all pretty clutch down the stretch. Imagine, the last time Westwood saw DEA was a year ago. That's when David Emanuel romped in a 20-point win to knock out Westwood in the first round of the state tournament.

"They cleaned our clocks,'' was exactly how Jenni Smith put it Wednesday.

But not this time.

"I think the difference is this year's team has engaged every team we have played,'' the coach said. "And we engaged them. And we tweaked our game plan against them.''

Jasmine Phillips, DEA's tall and smooth inside player, managed to make just one basket and finished with three points, thanks to Vereen, who blocked two of Phillips' shots and she guarded her all afternoon.

"(Coach Smith) told me not to give her the baseline, and not to let her drive to the basket,'' Vereen said. "And I didn't.''

Smith also changed her defense to a man-to-man press.

"We didn't get as many turnovers, but we wanted to make it aggravating for them every time they had the ball,'' Smith said.

They still forced 20 turnovers, and you could see the aggravation in the fourth quarter when DEA missed its first eight shots form the floor. By the time Laura Cardell, who led DEA with 14 points, hit a 3-pointer with 2:07 left, it only cut the lead to 32-28.

That's when the poise really kicked in as Westwood took its time and wound the clock down before Vereen and Miller Singleton closed it out with three free throws in the final minute to build the lead to 35-28 with 24 seconds left.

Now they are in the title game, facing Crisp Academy for the fourth time this season, at noon Saturday for the crown. Crisp won all three games, including a 44-29 win in the Region 3-A final just two weeks ago. And the drought's been just about as long for Crisp, which hasn't won a title in 34 years.

But this could be a different Westwood team this time around -- tougher, more experienced and a team with a purpose.

"You could tell it at the end of the game,'' Miller Singleton said. "Look at our bench and every player on the court. We wanted this. It's all about heart. You can have a great player, but you can't beat a team -- and we're a team.

"It's about heart, and this team has heart.''