MILLEDGEVILLE -- If there are any critics left who still believe that Terrell Academy can't succeed at the Class AA level after winning the last two girls basketball state crowns in Class A -- then making a big offseason move up -- Lady Eagles coach Keith Jones can't hear them.
Sorry ... he's got three championship rings plugging up his ears.
"Three-peat, baby!" Jones said moments after his girls beat Gatewood, 43-41, in the final Saturday at Georgia College & State. "I'll say it again: "THREE-PEAT!"
Thanks to Maura Milliron and Co., Jones and all the folks back home in Dawson have 364 more days to say it as many times as they want.
Milliron hit a driving lay-up with 2.4 seconds left to give the Lady Eagles a thrilling two-point win against Gatewood, which tied the game at 41-41 with five seconds left, only to watch the title slip away right before the Lady Gators' eyes.
"Alex Barfield hit a 3 that put us up by three points with 15 seconds to go, and we thought we had it, but then (Gatewood) came back down and banked in a 3-pointer to tie it back up," Jones said, nearly out of breath as he tried to recant the wild ending. "I started to call a timeout, but then I saw Maura open down the floor and I just said, 'Ok ... let's see if we win it right here.' "
Barfield was reading her coach's mind.
She took the inbounds pass from Carley Law, broke the Gatewood trap and heaved a 40-foot screamer down the court to a wide open Milliron, who calmly layed the ball in the bucket.
"When I saw (Gatewood shot the 3) I wasn't even sure if it went it, but then I saw them go into a press and I thought, 'I guess they made it, now I need to get open,' " Milliron, a sophomore, recalled. "Then they just started trying too hard to get the steal and it left me and Carley open, and the pass came to me. I knew time was running out, and I knew I had to get it in. And I did. It just went in.
"I never imagined it would come down to that."
Terrell captured the last two Class A state championships, but had been hearing all offseason from a host of fans inside and outside Dawson that it couldn't -- and wouldn't -- get the job done at the next level.
"I can't say enough about these girls," Jones said. "I never dreamed we would win three, much less three in a row. It just feels great. And I guess we proved (the nay-sayers) wrong."
"I think we proved our point, definitely," she said. "And (our point) wasn't so much that we could win it all (at Class AA), but that we could do whatever we set our minds to. People said we weren't going to win it, and we just told ourselves we would go out and try our best to make sure we did."
But this one was in doubt early on ... in the middle ... and even late for the Lady Eagles, who trailed every step of the way until the fourth quarter.
Gatewood jumped out to a 14-4 first-quarter lead and dominated the boards early as Terrell hit only two of its first 10 shots, even though the Lady Eagles' defensive pressure was creating problems for Gatewood.
"We rely on our defense to score points and I didn't think we did a whole lot in the first half, but when it came down to it, we were able to make plays," said Jones, who got a team-high 13 points from Barfield, 10 each from Marlee Locke and Millie Foster, while Milliron and eighth-grader Marilauren Farr each finished with seven.
The Lady Eagles were able to get back into the game in the second quarter after a huge boost from Farr, who scored four quick points just before halftime to help cut the lead to 22-16. But Terrell still trailed, 27-23, at the end of three quarters, despite forcing eight third-quarter turnovers and holding Gatewood to only two baskets in the quarter.
They were finally able to catch the Lady Gators on a Barfield put back and took the lead seconds later on a 3-point play by Barfield again with a little more than four minutes left in the game. Barfield hit another trey seconds later to give the Eagles their biggest lead of the game of three points. Gatewood, however, would not quit, as Jordan Camp answered Barfield's go-ahead trey with a wild 3-point bank shot in to tie the game at 41-41 with five seconds left.
Terrell then inbounded the ball and Barfield found Milliron down court, setting up her last-second heroics.
"I had my hands up to call timeout but everything just happened so fast," Jones said. "I saw that we had two girls behind them and Barfield made a great pass to Milliron. Maura missed that same shot
in the last game, but I think we will quit teasing her about it now."
Speaking of being teased, Jones said he's likely never going to hear the end of it from his fans about how the Lady Eagles continue to be involved in heart-stopping finishes year after year in these championship games.
"We won the first two (in Class A) by three points, and now we won this one by two -- and they all came down to the end," Jones said of 2009's 42-39 state title win against Fullington, followed by a 45-42 win -- also against Fullington -- last season when Barfield made a 3-pointer as time expired to win it. "I guess (the moral of the story) is that we like to win, but we don't like winning by a lot."
Milliron said she'll take on the hero role for this win, but had hoped it wouldn't come down to that.
"(The night before) I just kept thinking about how I hoped we would have an easy game -- that we'd come out and blow them off the court," she said with a laugh. "Once again, it didn't work out like that."
For Gatewood head coach Melanie Walls, it was the end of another great year as the Lady Gators became the latest team that failed to keep Terrell out of the winner's circle.
"We knew that they were a very quick team and that they would pressure us the entire game," said Walls, whose team -- ironically, in a situation opposite of Terrell's -- won the Class AAA state title last year before moving down. "Here we are, a team with no seniors and we battled all the way. We lost the lead and we came back and tied it three times in the last four minutes. I think our 30 turnovers throughout the game hurt us tremendously, and our youth probably hurt us.
"(But) we lost to a very good team."
Gatewood's Savannah Douglass, who scored eight points to go along with eight rebounds, summed up the tough loss as best as she could.
"We lost to a great team, but I would not trade one person on this team," Douglass said.
Neither would Jones.
"My three seniors -- Millie Foster, Carley Law and Marlee Locke -- they were the glue that held us together this year and we will miss them dearly," the coach said. "But all together, we had nine girls who worked their fannies off and believed we could do it again when not many other people believed we could."
Albany Herald sports editor Danny Aller contributed to this report