Three years have led to this moment. As the seconds counted down, New Albany began to celebrate the championship they have coveted for so long, but fell short at winning. In the end, there were only tears of joy as the careers of eight seniors ended and the Lady Bulldogs were finally able to call themselves State Champions.
“We’ve been waiting for this game for three years,” NAHS Head Coach John Stroud said. “Talking to the girls earlier, we’ve won 87 games with this group, so it would be a shame to not win the gold ball at one point in their careers. It was a total team effort.”
New Albany led for the majority of their 71-61 win over Lawrence County, but the Lady Cougars fought from behind on several occasions, testing the Lady ‘Dawgs.
Led by Tiaria Griffin, the Lady Cougars opened the game with a 3-0 lead, but that was quickly put aside thanks to an 11-0 New Albany run.
New Albany maintained a 17-10 lead heading into the second quarter, but Lawrence County made it a three-point game at the break thanks to 11 points from Griffin and a three-point shot by Ashley Peyton at the end of the half.
Griffin tied the game at 30 to open the second, and the Lady Cougars had two leads in the frame before a 6-0 Lady ‘Dawg run put New Albany ahead for good.
“They never panicked because they all knew they could make the big play, so we knew we could get the big basket when we needed to and get the big stop when we needed to,” Stroud said.
Jazmine Spears carried the load with 14-second half points, including a three-point play in the fourth that put New Albany ahead by 11, 55-44. A 12-0 run helped seal the win despite one last run by Lawrence County. Spears finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds, earning Player of the Game honors, but Stroud credited the play of Kebrina Lucas, whose 25 points was the difference maker.
“When she [Lucas] scores, we know we’re going to win,” he said. “We know Jazmine and Micha are going to get their 35-40 every game, so when she puts in 25, it’s a big plus for us.”
“We’ve been wanting a gold ball since we were sophomores, and it’s great to finally get it as seniors,” Lucas added. “We’ve played a lot of tough teams and I think that helped us a lot along with being experienced.”
Griffin finished with a game-high 39 points, making four three-pointers to keep the Lady Cougars in the game.
“We knew what she was capable of, and you don’t see that every night,” Stroud said of Griffin. “She shot some really big three’s, and our goal tonight was to keep her at 25 or under and she ended with 39. She’s the best offensive player we’ve played all year.”
Stepping up the competition
After falling in the 2010 championship game, their only loss of the season, Stroud vowed that his team would play tougher competition with the hopes that the experience would lead them back to Jackson. Falling in four games this year to out-of-state opponents, Stroud’s strategy worked, as the Lady Bulldogs went undefeated against in-state teams, keeping their number one ranking the entire season.
“After last year, we beefed our schedule up, and we talked about how we played a tougher schedule than Lawrence County,” he said. “Any time you’ve won a lot in a season, it gets tough, because we’re talking about staying focused all year. You have to give credit to them.”
Ending the season at 29-4, the road to a State Championship was finally completed, and there were no words for the sophomore sensation, Spears, after the game.
“It feels great, I can’t explain it,” she said. “We finally found the Gold Ball.”
Spears and Micha Washington, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, were named to the 4A All-Tournament team.