Darton’s Michelle Mitchell, 21, and Jasmine Wilson, 20, celebrate with their teammates after beating Denmark Tech, 75-55, Friday night at Cavalier Arena to win the District J title and advance to the national tournament in Kansas.
ALBANY — The good news: the Darton Lady Cavs are headed to Salina, Kan., for the program’s second appearance in the NJCAA national tournament.
The bad news: they will have to go the rest of the season without playing in Cavalier Arena — a gym where they haven’t lost since Dec. 9, 2011 and went a perfect 18-0 this season with Friday’s 75-55 victory against Denmark Tech (S.C.) in the District J championship game.
It’s a trade-off Darton coach Lea Henry is more than willing to make.
“It’s been a great ride here at home,” Henry said. “(Friday night) was a lot of fun, and I wanted it to be fun because I felt like we would have a great crowd. We have been in some tough battles here lately, but on (Friday) I saw them relax a little bit. There was still that look of relief, but also that look of excitement.”
The 11th-ranked Lady Cavs had plenty to be excited about Friday after winning for the 20th time in their last 21 games and punching their ticket to nationals for the first time since 2000 in front of a large and noisy home crowd.
“The enthusiasm that was in this gym, you don’t find that in a lot of college women’s basketball games,” Henry said. “The energy was unbelievable. I think our team really did feed off the crowd. At the same time they are trying to battle to win the game, so I thought their focus was outstanding considering the commotion in the stands.”
The Lady Cavs (30-3) overcame a sluggish start to pull away from Denmark (21-3) late in the first half and then cruise to a victory in the second half on the back of Region XVII Player of the Year Michelle Mitchell, who scored a game-high 22 points.
“It was amazing for us to come out and play well,” said Mitchell, who was 10-for-21 from the field. “The crowd was helping us, and we had a lot of adrenaline going.”
It was easily the largest crowd of the season and likely the largest in the history of the program, which has been taken to new heights by Henry since the Damascus native returned to Southwest Georgia after a long, successful stint at Division I Georgia State.
It had been over a decade since the Lady Cavs had even advanced to a district championship game, but now they are soaring into Kansas as one of the hottest teams in the nation.
Of course, they’ll miss Albany when they head north next week for the national tournament.
“It’s going to be different playing in Kansas,” Darton point guard Jasmine Wilson said. “But we are still going to have our home team sitting there on our bench, and we know our fans are going to push us the whole way. As long as we bring home the championship, that’s all that matters.”
The celebration didn’t start until the final seconds started to tick off the clock Friday, but it could have began a lot earlier for Darton, which outmatched Denmark Tech in every corner of the court.
The Lady Cavs outrebounded the Lady Panthers 72-37, held Denmark to 25 percent shooting from the field and simply ran away with the game midway through the first half.
Denmark cut Darton’s lead to three points with 9:26 remaining in the opening half before Mitchell hit back-to-back shots to put the Lady Cavs up by seven — a lead that only increased as the night went on and got as high as 29 with 11:04 left in the game.
“The crowd really gave us a big lift and made us play better and better and better,” Darton freshman Kadayasha Jones said. “We really play well every where because coach makes us feel comfortable, but (Friday) we had the fans.”
And the fans had a night to remember.
Jones finished with nine points and 17 rebounds, Chanteniece Fann overcame early foul trouble and added eight points and 10 rebounds and Tamarah Fisher had eight points and six rebounds.
One of the stars of the night was 6-foot-6 sophomore Crystal Reed, who entered the game just before halftime and immediately blocked two shots to help the Lady Cavs close on a 7-0 run in the final minute. Reed finished the game with seven points, seven blocks and eight rebounds.
“Crystal Reed came off the bench and made a huge difference in the game,” Henry said. “I am proud of her, because her minutes come and go when we need her most.”
Henry will likely need Reed again in Kansas, where the Lady Cavs will be among the top 24 teams in the nation. Friday’s win could go a long way in helping Darton get a top eight seed and a first-round bye.
“We kept telling our team (Friday) that not only do we want to win the game, but we want to win the game convincingly because when the (NJCAA) committee meets on Monday and starts seeding the 24 teams that make it, we want a high seed,” Henry said.
The Lady Cavs made a strong argument for one of those coveted top eight seeds with their 11th win a row Friday.
And it was a win that was never in doubt. After heading into the locker room at halftime with a 17-point lead, Darton opened up the second half on an 18-6 run, holding Denmark Tech to just one field goal during a nine-minute span to go ahead by 29.
The Lady Bobcats, who entered the game winners of 19 of their last 20 games, fought back to within 17 points in the closing minutes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent them from losing their first road game of the season.