RUTLEDGE – Grainger head coach Rusty Bishop had a gut feeling that the game his team was going to play against South Greene on Wednesday night would be a dogfight even though the Lady Grizzlies had cruised to victory in their three previous games this season. It turns out he was right.
Grainger had beaten the Lady Rebels by a combined 100 points (196-96) entering the region tournament championship but Wednesday’s matchup saw the Lady Grizzlies grind out a hard-fought 58-54 win to cut down the nets and qualify to host the sub-state game Saturday night at The Den.
“I knew South Greene would be better and I really expected this in the district championship game,” Bishop said of his fourth encounter with the Lady Rebels this year. “It’s tournament time and South Greene is always ready and I tried to convince my girls that we would have to battle. And it should be a battle, that’s what regional championships are supposed to be because they don’t just hand these things out. These games have to be hard or they wouldn’t mean a whole lot.”
Grainger moves to 32-3 on the season while South Greene falls to 16-13. The Lady Grizzlies will host Alcoa at 7 p.m. Saturday and it will the third time the two squads have faced off this year with Grainger winning both previous encounters. South Greene travels to Northview Academy after the Lady Cougars bested Alcoa 64-61 in overtime.
Juniors Alia Maloney (12 points), Sydnie Hayes (11 points) and Audrey Stratton (16 points) were the big story in the game as they carried the Grainger offense. Bishop said he thought they would be a key to victory against South Greene. “I told my assistants today that between Audrey, Sydnie and Alia, two of those three had to have big nights for us offensively because I knew they were going to try to take our seniors out of the way. All three of those juniors were just great tonight.”
The Lady Rebels started the game about as well as they could as they jumped out to a 9-0 lead when Addison Williams and Kiley Collins each scored on three-point plays where they drove to the basket for the score, got fouled and then sank the free throw and Amelia Mullins hit a downtown shot. Grainger didn’t net their first points until the 3:18 mark when Lauren Longmire had a steal, layup and free throw. Longmire found Hayes for a layup late but South Greene was in total control at the end of the first period, 14-5.
Then came the second period. Wherein Grainger couldn’t hit anything in the opening frame, they couldn’t miss in the first three minutes of the second as Hayes and Maloney swished threes and Hayes added a two-pointer as did Longmire to put together a 10-0 run. South Greene recovered but Grainger ended the first half with seven points in a row to lead 25-21.
Maloney started the second half with four straight points but South Greene answered with seven of their own. From that point on, the game went back and forth as the lead changed hands 10 total times throughout the entirety of the contest. The Lady Rebels went up 37-36 at the end of the third when Collins was true on a three with three seconds to go.
Grainger enjoyed a one-point lead at 40-39 when Tori Rutherford hit a big triple. It was big because it was the last field goal the Lady Grizzlies scored the rest of the way. Grainger was able to get to the line an incredible 18 times in the final 5:10 of the game where they hit 15 of them. South Greene was as close as 53-52 with 22 ticks to go but Maloney and Stratton finished things off at the line in the exciting 58-54 win.
“We stretched it early in the third period and got the lead to nine and then they wound up leading us at the end of the quarter. I can’t say enough about Audrey Stratton stepping up to the line and hitting them in the fourth quarter,” Bishop said of his junior guard who hit 10 freebies in the fourth period.
Longmire finished with 11 points for Grainger and was named the Most Valuable Player of the regional tournament. Hayes, Rutherford and Stratton were named to the All-tournament team from Grainger. Collins led South Greene with 16 points and Mullins added 13. Grainger will take on an Alcoa team that they snuck past 54-46 on December 7 and defeated by 13 on February 4, 71-58. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in Rutledge.