GHSA CLASS A STATE TOURNAMENT: No. 1 Pelham girls stunned in opener

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

PELHAM -- Shocked. No, shell-shocked.

That's the word Pelham girls basketball coach Antonia Tookes used. A dictionary or Wikipedia might have helped.

No, nothing could help. Not now, not in the aftermath of this brutal loss, this shocker that left Pelham numb -- a 62-46 defeat to Emanuel County

Institute in the opening round of the GHSA Class A State Tournament on Friday that ended Pelham's magical season with a thud.

"Maybe I should have told them it was just another game, but it's not another game,'' Tookes said. "It's the playoffs and you either win or go home. Unfortunately, we're going home.''

It was a nightmare from the opening tipoff for Pelham, which made just one shot in the first quarter and was down, 15-3, after the first eight minutes.

Thanks to Super 6er D'Ambria Thomas, who almost inspired Pelham to the victory, the Lady Hornets came back. After trailing by 18 points -- 40-22 with 2:47 left in the third -- Thomas led the last surge and Kayla Smith's putback with 4:47 left in the game completed a 22-9 run that cut the lead to 49-44.

"I thought we were going to win the game then,'' said Thomas, who scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and made a half dozen steals. She also handed out five assists.

After ECI missed at the other end, Pelham had a chance to cut the lead to three or even two with a bomb, but ECI's Erin Dixon -- one of four players back from last year's Elite 8 team -- picked off a pass and finished the play by making two free throws that ignited ECI.

The Lady Bulldogs (18-5) then ran off an 8-0 run, and spread the floor in the last two minutes of the game, hitting easy shots and nailing free throws to build the lead back to 16 points.

"I thought everyone would play hard, but I guess not,'' Thomas said afterward.

Tookes felt the same way.

"We had one player go really hard (Friday night),'' she said. "The other ones just looked like they were out of it. I don't know what it was. I think we were a little shell-shocked, a little nervous.''

Not to mention frustrated.

That was the look on Thomas' face most of the night as she fought her way through double teams, running the floor as a point guard and rebounding at both ends of the court.

"She gave me everything she had,'' Tookes said. "That's all I can ask for.''

Octavia Kierce finished with eight points and two monster blocks, T'Shaunessy Reese finished with seven, and Smith scored five for Pelham. ECI was led by Tekerra Branch (21 points), Ashanna Steele (14) and Dixon (12 points).

"There's no explanation,'' Kierce said of the loss. "I don't even know ... I'm so speechless, it's ridiculous.''

Kierce and Reese, who led the team along with Thomas all year, are juniors and will be back, but this was Thomas' last game at Pelham.

"I learned a lot this year,'' she said. "I learned you go hard and play hard until the end. I learned that no matter what happens, you keep playing hard.

Thomas then added: "(ECI's) a good team. They out-rebounded us and I guess we just weren't feeling it (Friday because we missed so many shots).''

It was hard to watch, especially for Tookes who saw her kids miss one shot after another -- the same shots they had made all season.

"The shots just wouldn't fall,'' Tookes said. "We missed easy shots, point-blank range shots. They just wouldn't fall for us.''

And that's the way it ended, this season that started with so much doubt with a new coach who admitted last week that when she started she didn't know if her team would even go .500.

Instead, her kids went 22-7 and won their first region title since 1997, and gave all of Pelham a ride the fans won't forget. The gym was packed at Pelham on Friday and most were on their feet when the Lady Hornets closed to five points in the fourth.

"When we got it (down to five), I thought we were going to pull it out,'' Tookes said. "We played in spurts but never played a complete game. We didn't play Pelham basketball.''

Then again, no one knew what Pelham basketball was until Tookes showed up.