Darton State College second-year coach Lea Henry, who came to Albany with a wealth of coaching experience -- including at the Division I level -- celebrates with her team Saturday afternoon after the Lady Cavs won the Region XVII championship by beating Chattahoochee Tech, 71-60, in the finals. (David Mann/Darton State College)
ALBANY — After a season full of focus and determination, Darton’s Michelle Mitchell finally let herself smile.
When she did, the tears finally came, too.
Standing near midcourt as the last few seconds ticked away in Saturday’s Region XVII championship game against Chattahoochee Tech, Mitchell — the regular-season and tournament MVP — and her teammates began to soak in the 71-60 victory.
“That moment felt good because we had worked so hard as a team, and I don’t think anybody in the region worked as hard as we had,” said Mitchell, who led the Lady Cavs with 24 points. “I was just telling my teammates that we did it. We finally did it.”
It was Darton’s first region championship since 2001, and it took second-year coach Lea Henry just two seasons to return the title to Albany and to take the Lady Cavs one step closer to the national tournament.
Nationally-ranked No. 11 Darton (29-3) didn’t trail in the final 26 minutes of the game, but Chattahoochee Tech hung with the regular-season champion Lady Cavs and cut the lead to as few as two points with six minutes remaining.
However, the Lady Cavs ended the game on a 15-6 run to win for the 19th time in their last 20 games and improve to a perfect 17-0 at home.
With 18 seconds left and an 11-point lead, Henry called a timeout to let the moment sink in for her players, who hadn’t yet started to celebrate the program’s first title in more than a decade.
“I had been on them the whole game, pushing them, demanding from them and trying to keep them focused,” said Henry, who was named the Region XVII Coach of the Year earlier in the week. “That was the timeout to say, ‘Enjoy it. You’ve done it.’ ”
Mitchell and the Lady Cavs stepped out of the huddle trading smiles, hugs and tears, and the celebration continued past the final buzzer and straight to the end of the court, where they gathered to cut down the net in a gym they haven’t lost in since Dec. 9, 2011.
“It was a great feeling to win. I don’t really have a better way to explain it,” said freshman point guard Jasmine Wilson, who finished with 14 points. “(Walking out of the timeout) my teammates said they were going to cry and that they worked hard, so we deserve this.”
Nobody deserved it more than Mitchell, who was the first to let the tears flow — the kind of cry that comes from two years of tireless work and dedication.
“I told her it was OK, go ahead and cry,” Wilson said. “She worked hard all year. She deserved it.”
Mitchell scored 16 points in the second half and matched Chattahoochee Tech star Shameeka Murray, who finished with a game-high 28 points, shot-for-shot down the stretch.
When Murray cut the Darton lead to two with eight minutes left, it was Mitchell who drove the length of the court and put the Lady Cavs back ahead by four. Five minutes later, Murray nailed a jumper to pull the Lady Eagles to within five, but Mitchell responded with her own field goal to push it back to seven.
“Coach kept telling me to keep taking it at (Murray), and that’s what I tried to do,” Mitchell said.
It was Mitchell vs. Murray down the stretch, and both players left the court in tears — but it was Mitchell who was left standing to cry again.
“Michelle decided we weren’t losing,” said Henry, a Damascus native who was the coach at Division I Georgia State before deciding to return to Southwest Georgia and pursue the Darton job so she could be closer to her family. “And she has done that all year, when it’s been critical times when we need to score. She is always the one who says, ‘Give me the ball, and I’ll make a play.’ ”
But it wasn’t just Mitchell who made the big plays on Saturday for Darton.
Iesha Bonner finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, Chanteniece Fann added eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds and Kadayasha Jones had 10 points and nine rebounds.
Darton jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the opening minute, but the Lady Eagles answered with an 11-0 run to go ahead by seven points with 16:15 left in the first half. The Lady Cavs bounced back with a 14-4 run of their own to regain the lead and then closed the half on a 16-10 run to take a 36-32 advantage into halftime.
The Lady Cavs never trailed after halftime, and their defense was a big reason why, holding Chattahoochee Tech to 31 percent from the field and 17 percent from 3-point range.
Mitchell thinks it’s that defense that will be key in Friday’s district play-in game against Region 10 champion Denmark Technical College (S.C.), which is Darton’s final obstacle before the NJCAA national tournament in Salina, Kan.
“We have to work hard and keep defending,” Mitchell said. “I think we are as good as any other team going to Kansas to play for a national championship.”
Henry improved to 49-11 in her two years since taking over the Darton program — but she yielded all the success to the players that she has brought to Albany.
“I am just so proud of the players,” Henry said. “In the two years I have been here, we have been able to get some talented, hard-working, first-class players in here that have really committed to the system.”
And Henry expects there to be a few more celebrations to come this season.
“It’s been a really exciting, successful season so far, but we have some more steps to take,” she said. “I think we need to take a couple of days and rest, because we have had to play hard in both (the semifinal and championship games). We have to take a couple days and the refocus on the district play-in game, because it’s been our goal all year to go to Kansas.”