GISA CLASS A GIRLS STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Crisp cuts down Westwood for Class A crown

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MILLEDGEVILLE -- This is what you need to know about the Westwood girls basketball team: Down by 18 with about three-and-a-half minutes left in their eventual 52-37 GISA Class A state title loss Saturday, Miller Singleton went bouncing across the floor, knees skidding the hardwood, arms stretched out reaching toward tomorrow -- like a human torpedo flying across the court.

She was trying to catch up with a loose ball.

Down by 18.

That's Westwood, a team with grit and character, and down-right courage.

The Lady Wildcats are a bunch you wish every team was -- a group of blue-collar kids with the kind of heart they make movies about.

But there was no Hollywood ending Saturday. Nope, just a tough loss to Crisp Academy in the final at Georgia College and State University, where no one expected Westwood to even show up for the title game when the season began.

The Lady Wildcats (18-10) may have arrived unexpectedly with a historic run, but they left expecting to come back.

"I've got five juniors, and we're not through,'' said Westwood's visionary coach Jenni Smith, who has taken the program from obscurity to the lip of winning the state title in just three years. Smith saw the run coming, even if no one else did, and sure enough, her kids became the first team to reach the Final Four in the 40-year history of the school.

"This will make them hungry for next year,'' Smith said. "They had no experience in playing in a building like this one or being (in the Final Four or state title game).''

Singleton, one of those five juniors, felt the same way. She led the Lady Wildcats with 12 points and left the court wanting to come back to it.

"It's bittersweet,'' said Singleton, her eyes red and swollen from crying. "I'm glad we had this experience and it will motivate us to get back here next year and win it. It makes us hungry.''

It was an incredible ride to get there.

"We're all so proud of this team,'' Singleton said. "We're all crying now. We're disappointed. But we're proud of each other, and proud to come this far. There's only one team that gets to be happy -- in the Super Bowl, the NCAA and here in the state title game. We finished second in the state and that's awesome.''

Westwood simply didn't have an answer for Crisp's Maddi Mitchell, a 6-foot freshman whose mother, Gina, coaches the team. Crisp had beaten Westwood three times before Saturday, including a 44-29 win in the Region 3-A title game just two weeks ago. Crisp (21-7) had also been to the Final Four a year ago, so all the odds were stacked against Westwood, which defied all of that and more to jump out to an 11-8 lead early.

Smith had a perfect plan to slow down young Mitchell. She packed her kids in a zone to try to even the odds against Mitchell, who isn't just tall but savvy. It might have worked if not for Kendall Wilson, who picked Saturday to have the game of her life.

"She usually scores about four points against us,'' said Westwood's 5-9 post, Virginia Vereen, who was dwarfed in height and weight the entire game by Mitchell.

Wilson simply couldn't miss, and her eight points in the first quarter lifted the other Lady Wildcats -- yes, they share the same mascot -- to a 14-11 lead. Wilson buried two outside shots to start the second quarter, and once Crisp had that lead, Gina Mitchell told her kids to hold the ball, forcing Westwood to abandon the zone and go to a man-to-man defense.

That's when Maddi Mitchell took over. She finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

"They did a good job of holding the ball and making us play man-to-man, and then they went to Maddi," Vereen said. "No one can match up with her. She's just so much bigger than everyone. She's going to get her 20-something points. It's a game in itself trying to stop Maddi. It's a challenge.''

Wilson, who missed just one shot all day, finished with 18 points, and her coach said that was the difference

"Kendall can do that, and we've known that all year,'' Gina Mitchell said. "She just wasn't very confident all the time in her shot and she would be in games and would be wide open and the crowd would be telling her to shoot and (it messed her up) and she wouldn't shoot.

"Well, (Saturday) no one said a word or had to tell her anything. She just shot the lights out and thank goodness she picked (the championship game) to have her best game of the season. She was absolutely the difference maker."

And that difference brought Crisp Academy its first state crown in 34 years.

"It feels just great (to win the title),'' the coach added. "That was our goal from the very beginning, even in camp (last summer) to win state. Those girls worked so, so, so hard and it was a total team effort. I can't be any prouder of them.''

Smith knew Little Mitchell had what it took to ruin Westwood's day. She wasn't counting on Wilson.

"We wanted to make someone else besides Maddi beat us,'' Smith said. "I know Kendall real well. I went to college with her mother and father, so if someone had to have a big day against us it might as well have been her.''

Westwood had solid games from Vereen, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds, and Morgan Singleton, an eighth-grader who scored nine points. But Westwood went cold in the second quarter, going 0-for-7 from the field, and managed just two points on a pair of Miller Singleton free throws. By that time, Maddi Mitchell was taking over the game, and Crisp built a 25-13 halftime lead and never looked back.

"That second quarter killed us,'' Smith said.

Gina Mitchell said she relished winning the title with her daughter, and knows she will have her three more years to begin building a dynasty in Cordele.

"It's just a good feeling (to win the title with my daughter) and it makes it that much more special. But really, Maddi's whole class of freshman -- and there are seven of them -- were all close-knit and great for us this year,'' Gina Mitchell said. "And they're going to be good for us for a while. It's gonna be fun.''