Fans and family members of Westwood’s girls basketball team storm the floor at Mercer University’s Hawkins Arena after the Lady Wildcats pulled off an upset of state powerhouse Arlington Christian, 72-70, in overtime of the GISA Class AA state final Saturday in Macon. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
MACON — They stormed the court in wave after wave, a giant ball of orange coming together, shouting, screaming, hugging and crying.
Lots and lots of crying.
“Was I crying? Was I really? I didn’t notice,’’ said Westwood girls basketball coach Jenni Smith, whose eyes were beet red and whose face was soaked in tears. “I don’t have the words.”
No one did.
Westwood had just pulled out it’s second inspirational victory in three days, somehow beating four-time state champion Arlington Christian, 72-70, in overtime to capture the GISA Class AA state title.
The kids in this no-quit, conquer-the-giant program have been called the Westwood Wonders before, but this win was as sweet as any — a victory that gave the small school in Camilla its first basketball title and came after the girls had fallen in the Class A state title two years in a row.
“We made history,’’ shouted sophomore Morgan Singleton, who has started for three years. “We were tired of losing and being second. We did it! It is so exciting. Oh my gosh, I am still shaking.’’
Believe it, Westwood.
This is no dream — just a dream season. It was Westwood Wonderful.
The history came wrapped in emotion and grit from a small-town team with a small lineup and an enormous heart — and it came after the season all but died on an air-ball shot and then found new life when Rachel Harrell grabbed the missed shot, looked up and watched her inside putback save the season to send the game to overtime.
It came in what has to be considered the biggest upset in all of GISA. Arlington (23-4) had won four titles in a row in Class AAA before stepping down to AA this year. Tiny Westwood made the move from Class A up to AA.
“Their school was a lot bigger and their team was so much bigger than us,’’ Smith said. “There were some serious mismatches.’’
Westwood (24-3) had to knock off the defending AA champ Gatewood in an incredible upset Thursday in the semifinal and then had to face Arlington’s front that included Ana Anderson, a 6-foot-4 senior who has committed to Division I Mercer, and 6-foot Rakeah Williams, who destroyed Terrell Academy with a 27-point, 14-rebound night in the semifinals. She scored 18 before fouling out late in regulation Saturday, while Anderson scored 15.
“They were big, real big,” said Singleton, who at 5-7 battled inside all night and finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds. But it was Rachel Harrell who grabbed the biggest rebound in Westwood history.
Harrell had a gutsy and unforgettable performance, scoring 28 points to lead the way, but the play that will go down in Westwood lore is the one she made to save a season.
The Lady Wildcats were trailing, 66-64, as the final seconds ticked away in regulation when the best Sister Act in GISA connected on a play for the ages.
Perra Harrell, a freshman who had scored eight points, fired Westwood’s final shot. The ball never got there. It died just short of the basket and all was lost. That’s when Rachel, a junior, appeared like magic, snatched the air ball beneath the rim and somehow got a shot off that dropped in at the buzzer. It was 66-66, and the Camilla crowd at Mercer’s Hawkins Arena went bananas.
“When I saw the shot fall short, I was devastated,’’ Perra said. “Then Rachel got it and put it in. I went from complete devastation to complete excitement.’’
So did all of Westwood.
“I didn’t have time to think,’’ said Rachel, who was right under the basket. “I just put the ball up. I didn’t know what else to do. I have never been so happy to see someone shoot an air ball. If she would have hit the rim I couldn‘t have gotten the ball in time.’’
Of course, in the Harrell household, the play will go down as the greatest assist in Westwood history.
“At the end of (regulation), I just didn’t feel like it was going to end,’’ Singleton said. “When Perra took the shot and missed I was just saying, ‘Oh my God!’ And then Rachel came out of nowhere and makes the shot. Your heart just drops when she misses and then Rachel makes it. You can’t describe it.”
And it was Rachel, standing at the free throw line with 9.6 seconds left in OT, nailing the second free throw — after watching her first roll away — to give Westwood a 72-70 lead once overtime began. It was her free throw with 2:15 left in OT that lifted Westwood to a 69-68 lead, and after Larisa Bishop missed a shot for Arlington, Singleton grabbed the long rebound and sent a pass down court to Rachel, who drove for a 71-68 lead with 1:42 left. Bishop, who led Arlington with 22 points, including 12 in the fourth and OT, hit a drive for her final points of the night to close to 71-70.
Both teams then missed shots, and Westwood had a chance to drain the clock, but a turnover gave Arlington a chance to win it with 39 seconds left. Bishop, who had burned down the nets all night, missed her third shot in a row, and Perra grabbed the rebound and got the ball to Rachel, who was fouled with 9.6 seconds left. Arlington waited until 1.8 to call timeout, and Bishop fired a long 3 that skipped over the top of the backboard and into Westwood history.
“It was the greatest feeling in the world,’’ said Rachel, who was guarding Bishop along with Callie Smith, who scored 13 points and played like a defensive wizard all night, at the end of the game. “I jumped so high. I don’t know how high I jumped.”
Then she cried her eyes out.
“I just started crying and couldn’t stop,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do. Then I saw my dad crying, and I started crying even harder.’’
After Thursday’s win, Singleton said Westwood was “just a gritty team,’’ and she said it again Saturday.
“We have grit,’’ she said. “We have to. We are so small, and nobody gave us a chance to win. From the beginning of the year when we moved from Class A to AA, nobody gave us a chance, and no one thought we would beat Arlington. We heard so much about them. Everyone was saying how good they are and how big they are. But we have grit, and we are a family. No one on this team is going to let anyone run them over.’’
Jenni Smith knows that better than anyone.
“I can’t put this into words,’’ she said. “It was such an intense, physical and emotional ball game. I was on the bench, and I’m exhausted.
“I knew Rachel was going to get the ball. I saw it (coming), and when she got it, I was just hoping she would have enough time to get the shot off. She did.
“This team is so unselfish. This team does have grit. It’s just something these kids have inside them. I don’t know if you can teach it. They have it, and it’s contagious.’’
In the end, that’s why she believes her kids won the title.
“I think these kids really believed in themselves, and believe that nobody is going to give you anything. You have to take it,” the coach said. “It’s that and hard work. They did it, and did it the only way they know how, scrapping and fighting to the end.”