Mitchell County players, from left, Ja’Shara Burns, Keondra Mango and Myia Barnes celebrate as they walk off the court Wednesday after beating Claxton in the Class A state tourney’s Sweet 16 round. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CAMILLA — Go ahead and try to scare the Mitchell County girls.
It won’t work.
The fearless Lady Eagles stood down a tough Claxton team on Wednesday and walked away with a 69-59 victory to advance to Friday’s Class A Elite 8.
“We had no fear,” said Mitchell County’s Shonbreka Holton, who finished with 12 points and 26 rebounds. “I feel like now we can beat any team.”
A’Miracle Jones wasn’t scared either.
“No fear,” said Jones, who added 18 points and 19 rebounds. “Just go in there and fight every game.”
It was a special evening in Camilla, where the Lady Eagles came from behind to win just before the Mitchell County boys advanced in the Class A State Tournament.
A special evening for a pair of special teams.
“It feels wonderful,” Mitchell County coach Rosemary Sanders said. “There isn’t a better feeling.”
The teams traded the lead 11 times in the contest until Mitchell County took a 48-46 lead with 7:29 left in the fourth quarter on a Kendra Frazier 3-point play. Claxton (22-7) chipped the lead down to one point, but the Lady Eagles hit their free throws in the closing minutes to pull away for the 10-point win and advance to play Charlton County in the Elite 8 on Friday in Milledgeville.
At 17-12 overall, the Lady Eagles’ record isn’t too impressive. But all that matters to Sanders is how her team has been playing lately, and she had little to complain about after the Lady Eagles, who were 12-12 heading into the Region 1-A tournament two weeks ago, soared into the Elite 8 for the second time in three years.
“We are really beginning to jell together,” Sanders said. “We had a bad start (to the season), and now we are jelling.”
Sanders knew how well her team was playing entering the Sweet 16 contest, but she was still nervous before tip-off.
“They were focused. I was more nervous than they were,” Sanders said. “There were butterflies in my stomach. They are so relaxed and ready to step on the court. In my mind I was like, ‘Are they really ready to play? They seem too relaxed.’ ”
Mitchell County’s post players were sure ready to play.
Holton and Jones outrebounded the entire Claxton team by six, and the Lady Eagles won the battle on the boards, 59-39.
“We knew that about them coming into the game,” Claxton coach Laura Aziz said. “I just don’t know how you stop that. They are sneaky about it.”
There was nothing sneaky about Claxton star guard Polly Murray, who made her presence felt from the opening minute. She nailed a 3-pointer to give Claxton a 3-0 lead and hit two more 3-pointers in the first quarter to give her team its early advantage. She finished with 29 points and 13 rebounds, but the senior was just 1-for-8 from the floor in the final period.
Mitchell County’s Keondra Mango finished with 15 points off the bench and nailed two huge 3-pointers in the second quarter that prevented the Lady Tigers from pulling ahead even further. De’Erica Lyons also came off the bench for the Lady Eagles and added nine points and five rebounds.
MITCHELL'S BOYS OVERCOME FIRST-QUARTER DEFICIT, STRANGE CONDITIONS TO BEAT CLAXTON AND ADVANCE:
CAMILLA — It took a slippery floor and a 30-minute delay to take the Mitchell County boys out of their game plan.
But even that wasn’t enough to derail the high-flying Eagles, who slipped and slid their way to their first Elite 8 appearance since 2003 with a 52-48 victory against Claxton in Wednesday’s Class A State Tournament Sweet 16 round.
“It was like ice out there, real slick,” Mitchell County’s Diquan Isom said about the slippery floor that caused both teams to head back to the locker room in the third quarter with the game tied at 30-30.
The Eagles (22-9) came out of the delay, took an immediate lead and never looked back.
But there was no celebration afterward by of the Eagles, who have dreams of adding a team portrait to the 2003 Class AA State Championship picture that hangs in the Mitchell County gymnasium.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said assistant coach Derex Woumnm, whose Eagles will now play Lanier County on Friday in Milledgeville. “Those guys know they didn’t play their best. We survived. It’s about surviving and winning, and we survived and won that one. But we know we have a lot of work to do to get better and keep fighting.”
But nobody can blame the Eagles for not being their usual fast-paced, exciting selves with the playing surface they were trying to run on. Woumnm explained that a team manager used a mop soaked in oil before the boys game, which caused disastrous conditions when combined with the humid conditions in the gym.
“That took us out of our game,” Woumnm said. “We could not play out style of basketball. That hurt the kids, because we really live on taking their guards away. We just really couldn’t play our style.”
The Eagles were forced to fall back into a zone in the first half, and Claxton took advantage. The visiting Tigers jumped out to an 8-0 lead and kept the advantage for the entire first half, taking a 24-19 lead into the second half.
The slippery floor intensified in the second half, causing officials to begin worrying about the safety of the players.
“I couldn’t stop and shoot like I wanted to. I couldn’t set my feet, because when I did I would slip,” Mitchell County’s Stacey Butler said. “We just kept slipping. We knew we were going to come back though.”
The Eagles slipped right into the lead after the break and had to hold off the Tigers with a style of play they weren’t used to. Instead of finessing its way to the victory, Mitchell County dug down deep and gutted it out.
“Those guys fought,” Woumnm said. “That team we played was a good team. They had a great game plan and played well. I thank God for this win, because we didn’t have our best game out there on the floor. But we still survived and won.”
Butler, who hit three huge 3-pointers in the third quarter, led the Eagles with 16 points, while Joquil Chester finished with nine points on three 3-pointers in the first half. Also for the Eagles, Bruce Bryant scored eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Isom had eight points and five rebounds.
Isom knocked down a 3 with 1:30 left in the third to give Mitchell County a 35-34 lead, and the Eagles never trailed again.
“I think we can go all the way,” Butler said. “We have the team this year. We just have to keep our heads on and stay focused. We can do it.”