Westwood players, from left, Mary Parker, Blakelee Handfield and Rachel Harrell hoist the GISA Class AA state championship trophy after beating Briarwood to repeat as state champs. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
MACON — With just a second left, the celebration quietly began.
Rachel Harrell stepped to the free throw line, calmly sinking a pair to give Westwood a four-point advantage. After her last attempt stripped the net, Briarwood inbounded the ball and held it, not even firing a last-second attempt.
Like a heavyweight boxing fight, Westwood went toe-to-toe with Briarwood Academy, then Harrell provided the knockout punch, sending the Lady Wildcats to a 50-46 victory in the GISA Class AA state finals at Mercer University’s Hawkins Arena on Saturday.
A wild celebration erupted as the final horn sounded. The student section poured onto the court to celebrate the school’s back-to-back championships. Everyone wanted a piece of the moment.
“I knew if I made both free throws, the game was over,” Harrell said. “I just tried to make them.”
Harrell’s free throws would not have been possible had it not been for Haley Marshall, who pulled down perhaps the biggest rebound of her basketball career.
With Briarwood’s Malia Kency driving for the potential game-tying basket, her attempt rimmed in and out of the goal and into the hands of Marshall underneath. She held it for a brief moment, then tossed it to Harrell, who was immediately fouled with 1.6 seconds left.
“I just wanted to hold it until they fouled us,” Marshall said. “Then I kept hearing to get it out to Rachel. I just wanted to get it to her. I wasn’t quite sure how much time was on the clock.”
Westwood players took a sigh of relief, then celebrated by hoisting the trophy with their fans. Most hugged with small tears of joy streaming down their faces.
“I’m happy but I want to cry,” Marshall said. “At the same time, I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. Right now, it’s overwhelming.”
With the exception of the early minute, Westwood (23-1) never trailed after Perra Harrell’s jumper at the 4:52 mark broke a 2-all tie.
The Lady Wildcats played excellent defense on Briarwood’s 6-foot-1 post player Tiffany Pate, who was held to 11 points. They kept her from scoring easy baskets inside the paint and forced the Lady Buccaneers to do most of their damage from the perimeter.
Westwood stayed in control for most of the game, leading by as many as eight throughout the first three quarters. Briarwood trimmed the deficit to three twice in the third, but each time, Westwood had an answer.
The Lady Wildcats got Pate to foul out with 3:56 left, then they tried to keep Kency at bay. The Briarwood senior guard hit 11 of her game-high 33 points in the final quarter, including a long 3-pointer from the top of the arc to tie at 46 with 48 seconds left. When Kency had the ball in her hands, she was a dangerous scoring threat.
But after she tied the game, on Westwood’s next possession, Rachel Harrell drove down court and attempted an 18-footer that bounced off the rim. However, she somehow beat the Briarwood defense, grabbing her own rebound and sinking a layup to put the Lady Wildcats ahead by two with 33 seconds left.
That set the stage for Marshall and Rachel Harrell to seal the victory after holding their breath on Kency’s final shot attempt. In fact, had Westwood lost, Harrell said she may have had nightmares of Kency dribbling down court and firing a 3-pointer like she did so often on Saturday.
“I might have had we lost,” Rachel Harrell said. “But now that we won, I won’t.”
Rachel Harrell may have drawn the headlines for leading the Lady Wildcats with 21 points. However, Saturday’s championship featured many standouts. Callie Smith finished with 14 points, but many others had a say-so in the offense.
With Briarwood trying to seize momentum in the opening seconds of the final quarter, Morgan Singleton scored on a running jumper to extend the Lady Wildcats’ lead to 35-30, then following a missed Briarwood attempt, Singleton heaved a Hail-Mary type pass from deep in the backcourt to a running Perra Harrell. The younger Harrell caught the pass like a wide receiver, then sank a layup to make it 37-30.
Singleton then added another basket to give Westwood its largest lead at 39-30 before Briarwood came roaring back.
Westwood coach Jenni Smith said her team persevered down the stretch when it mattered the most.
“That might be the biggest rebound in Haley’s basketball career,” she said. “If she had not got it and they get a putback, it’s not the same game.”
With Westwood in control in the final seconds, all that was left was the celebration.
“All week long I have been in a thankful spirit,” Jenni Smith said. “This team is so blessed. Some teams never get here, much less play for a state championship for the fourth year in a row. That’s something most athletes don’t get to do. Winning two state basketball titles is just a gift.”
Just like Marshall’s rebound.