Led by sixth-year coach Jennifer Acree, front, center, the Randolph-Clay girls basketball team is one win from achieving the goal Acree set out to accomplish when she took the job in 2007: win a state championship. The Lady Red Devils take on Gordon Lee today at 3 p.m. in Macon. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Want To Go, Watch or Follow Online?
WHO: No. 6 seed Gordon Lee girls (23-7) vs. No. 1 Randolph-Clay (29-2).
WHAT: GHSA Class A State Championship game.
WHEN: 3:25 p.m. today.
WHERE: Macon Centreplex, Macon.
WATCH ON THE WEB OR TV: Georgia Public Television or online at ghsa.playonsports.com.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
CUTHBERT --- Jennifer Acree sat alone, just outside the Randolph-Clay girls locker room. She had cried and cried hard, and now there was nothing but silence and pain.
Her team — the team — had just been stunned in the second round of the state playoffs, and Acree, who had already been to the Final Four three times, including twice with Randolph-Clay, was in disbelief.
This was the team that was going to win a state title for the Lady Red Devils and R-C, a school rich in basketball tradition. It was 2010 and R-C had two college-bound players, including Division I signee Destiny Mitchell, who was arguably as good as any player in Georgia.
Acree was alone and everyone at R-C wanted to leave her alone. There was nothing to say. The loss was gut-wrenching.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody,’’ Acree said this week after practice, replaying the moment. “Everyone knows how I am after a loss, and that loss was devastating. I just sat there alone in that chair outside the locker room.
“Then a 12-year-old girl came up to me and said, ‘Coach A, don’t worry. When I’m a freshman, I will get you a ring. When I get to Randolph-Clay we will win a state title.’
“Can you believe that? A 12-year-old girl in seventh grade told me that.”
Acree then paused and added: “That girl is Kobi Thornton.”
Kobi’s promise is alive and well, and so are the Lady Red Devils, who meet Gordon Lee at 3 p.m. today in Macon in the Class A state title game.
Kobi is now a freshman. She arrived at R-C this year full of hope and promise and joined a team that was full of heart and heartache.
Or, as Acree likes to say, “A team with a mission.”
After practice Tuesday, Thornton said. “I remember saying that. I remember thinking how important winning a state title was and talking to Coach A and telling her that. I don’t remember exactly why I did it, but I remember saying it. I just knew how important winning a state title is.’’
She’s ready to keep the promise.
The 6-foot-1 Thornton has played like it all year and is a big reason the Lady Red Devils have reached the title game.
Kobi’s older sister, Brianna, is a sophomore and the two Thornton girls are as imposing and as talented as any inside presence in Georgia. Brianna stands at 6-feet
The Thornton Towers simply dominate in the paint.
They usually combine to score between 20 and 35 points a night, grab between 20 and 25 rebounds and combine to block about six to eight shots a night. And that doesn’t take into account the shots they alter. Teams that go into the paint often find themselves tossing up some ridiculous shots to try to overcome Kobi and Brianna’s defense. In the opening round of the state playoffs Portal shot 13 air-balls, including one that sailed over the backboard.
Portal’s coach simply said afterward: “You can’t prepare for that height. They are much faster and much bigger in person than they are on tape.”
The Thornton sisters joined a trio like no other at Randolph-Clay — three seniors who have seen it all and have helped this program rise to the top. Adriana Blackmon, the point guard and heart of this team, is a four-year starter who does almost everything on and off the court, and the Washington twins, Kanekia and Whenekia, are two of the best shooting guards anywhere.
Blackmon and Kanekia have both scored more than 1,300 points in their careers at Randolph, and Whenekia has scored almost 900.
“This team is different from the first two that went to the Final Four,’’ said Acree, whose 2007 and 2008 teams reached the state semis. She also had a team when she was the coach at Screven County make it to the Final Four — but this year’s bunch is her team.
“This team is different because I have had the seniors for four years. They’re mine,’’ she said. “This team is special. This (trip to state) is sweeter because of everything they went through as sophomores.’’
Acree said this week that one reason she was so distraught after that loss in 2010 is because she knew the program would have to rebuild. She knew it would take a while.
The evidence showed up in 2011 when the Lady Red Devils went 12-13, posting the only losing season in Randolph-Clay girls basketball history.
“That season was horrible,’’ said Kanekia, who started as a sophomore. “We weren‘t together as a team. Everyone was going their own way. It was devastating to lose like that, and it was embarrassing to be the first team with a losing (record).’’
Blackmon said that some of the players had the own agenda, and there simply wasn’t a bond or unified effort in 2011. She hated losing. All the juniors on last year’s team who are now seniors on this year’s team hated it, and they did something about it.
“We talked about it the next summer,’’ Kanekia said. “We said, ‘We don’t have much time. We have to make it right,’ and we all said that our senior year would be our year.’’
The Lady Red Devils won 20 games last season, including giving Acree her 200th career win, but they were stopped in the state tournament in the second round.
“We were determined that wasn’t going to happen this year,’’ said Blackmon, who ended up being the key figure in the turnaround. She had led the team in scoring for two years, but last summer Acree asked her to play point guard, to run the team.
“That was the key,’’ Acree said. “If we were going to do it, she had to play point guard to make everything else work.”
“I didn’t want to do it,’’ she said. “I didn’t think I could do it, and told her I couldn’t do it.’’
But Acree believed if this team was going to have a chance to win it all, she had to have not just a point guard, but a great one. That’s exactly what she got from Blackmon, who runs the offense and does everything except sell tickets outside the gym. She’s averaging 12 points and makes everyone better, and even as a point guard she is still getting five or six rebounds a night while handing out an average of five to six assists and making five or six steals. She isn’t just the straw that stirs the drink at Randolph-Clay — she’s the ingredient in the drink that brings the fire.
“She’s the heart of this team,’’ Kanekia said.
There’s a lot of heart at R-C, where the school has won two girls state titles, the first in 1996 and another in 2000, But this could be a team for the ages. After losing their first game of the year to Class AAAA Monroe in Albany, the Lady Red Devils won 29 of their next 30, including 19 in a row. They were ranked No. 1 in the public school state rankings from Day 1 and got better as the year progressed.
They have been The Herald’s No. 1 team in Southwest Georgia — regardless of class — since the first week in January, and this team is twice as good as the one that started the season. They haven’t lost a game in 2013, and their last defeat was to Class AA powerhouse Greater Atlanta, 45-37, on Dec. 22.
No one has been close to them lately. They had to have a mercy-rule clock in the Region 1-A title game against defending champ Mitchell County as R-C romped, 73-46, to win its first region crown since that 2010 team won it.
The Lady Red Devils (29-2) had a mercy-rule clock when they beat Portal, 74-28, in the opening round of the state playoffs and then beat Mitchell in the second round of the playoffs, 72-55, before running away from Wilkinson County, 57-34, to reach the final.
In Randolph’s last five games, four different players have led the Lady Red Devils in scoring, including sixth girl Crystal Ricks, who came off the bench and had a career-high 21 points in R-C’s 59-48 win against Seminole County in the region semifinals. Kobi has led the team in scoring twice over that stretch, and Whenekia hit seven 3s to lead the way with 26 points against Mitchell in the region title game. Kanekia scored 12 of her game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter last week to put away Wilkinson County with a 26-3 run.
It’s not just balance, it’s a way of life at R-C, where the kids play an unselfish brand of basketball that has all but defined this season and this run to the title game.
“Nobody cares who scores the points,’’ Blackmon said. “We just want to win. I mean it, nobody cares who scores.’’
Kanekia added: “All that matters is winning. We don’t care who scores. This team isn’t like that. Who cares who scores as long as we’re winning?”
Acree has instilled the idea that five fingers aren’t as strong as a fist, and the kids and the coach have taken that fist metaphor to heart. It’s that balance and bond that makes this team so unique.
“We have the iron fist,’’ Acree said, making a fist. “They believe in it. We’re Randolph-Clay!’’
Acree, who has been at R-C for six years, believes this is her most balanced team and knows anyone on the court can lead the Lady Red Devils on any given night. They make life miserable because the Thornton sisters can beat teams up inside, and Whenekia, who hit nine 3s in a game this year, can destroy teams from beyond the arc. Then there’s Kanekia, who has one of the best shots in Southwest Georgia. Blackmon scores from outside and also has the ability to drive on teams.
“What makes them so tough is they have an inside and outside game,’’ Mitchell County interim coach Wendy Whitlock said.
Seminole County coach Wes Williams, whose team is the only one to get close to R-C over the last month, said: “They have talent everywhere. They have the two 6-foot girls inside, but they can shoot, too.’’
Seminole County gave Gordon Lee all it wanted, leading the entire game before losing, 73-68, on the road as the Lady Indians had to make a round-trip of almost 700 miles in the Sweet 16. Had that game been in Donalsonville, Seminole might be playing R-C in the title game today.
Gordon Lee (23-7), which is led by Katelyn Lee — a 6-4 junior who has already committed to Division I Samford — was ranked No. 2 in the state rankings all year until the Lady Trojans lost to Southwest Atlanta Christian, the top private school team in the state, in the region finals. That loss dropped Gordon Lee to No. 6 in the rankings, but in reality, the top two ranked public schools in Georgia are facing off today for the title.
It has been a long journey for the Lady Red Devils, who started the year with a loss and the sound of critics. Yes, critics.
“It’s kind of like when you are winning and everybody is on the bandwagon,’’ Kanekia said. “When you’re not winning it flips the other way.’’
The kids not only had a meeting, but they had several meetings to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“We all got up and talked,’’ Blackmon said. “People talked about us at the beginning of the year. They didn’t believe we would win. And during the year we heard people say we were overrated. But this team has a bond, a chemistry. We’re close, and that bond keeps us together. We’ve been through a lot and everyone remembers our sophomore year. We had a goal and that was to win a state championship.”
That’s all that is left now. One game, one promise.
Kobi said the run is even better than she thought it would be, and now that R-C is one step away, she said it was hard to find words on what a state title would mean.
“It would mean everything,’’ she said.
As for it would mean to keep that promise to her coach? She smiled and waited to answer and then blurted out her answer all at once, like an explosion.
“If we win a state championship, I will be the happiest girl in the world.’’
That’s a promise …