Hosting a state playoff game for the first time, the East Jackson girls’ basketball team had its chances to notch the program’s first-ever playoff victory, but it wasn’t quite to be.
Visiting Sandy Creek got five key free throws from senior guard Jania Hodges in the final 89 seconds of the game, and the Patriots held off the Eagles 48-41 on Tuesday, Feb. 23, in the first round of the GHSA Class AAA playoffs. Sandy Creek (17-12), the No. 3 seed from a formidable Region 5-AAA, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and will travel to Region 6 champion Sonoraville on Friday, Feb. 26, for its next contest. The Eagles, the Region 8 runners-up, saw their season come to an end at 10-7.
East Jackson was making just its second playoff appearance in program history and its first under second-year head coach Cherrelle Pullen. The Eagles had some early success with their game plan to play up-tempo and attack the rim, but the execution was hit-or-miss down the stretch, and a crucial cold-shooting spell in the final minutes denied them a comeback.
The Eagles led 13-12 after the first quarter, but the Patriots went on an 11-4 run over the final three and a half minutes of the first half — spearheaded by a pair of 3-pointers from Hodges, who finished with a game-high 18 points — to take a 28-23 advantage into the locker room.
Sandy Creek would not relinquish that lead and stretched it to as many as eight points at 43-35 with 5:21 left in the game before East Jackson made one last grasp at a rally. Senior Maurissa Thomas, who finished with a team-high 12 points, knocked down a jumper, then stole a pass on the ensuing possession and glided down an open lane for a layup to cut the deficit to 43-39 with 4:49 left. But the Eagles would not score again until another basket from Thomas with 1:01 remaining that made it 45-41 and missed several 3-pointers in the final minutes.
The Eagles came up with one more steal with 44 seconds left but missed a three that was rebounded by Hodges, who was fouled and sank both free throws to make it 47-41 with 16 seconds left and essentially put the game away.
“We settled for a lot of outside shots, which weren’t falling,” Pullen said after the loss. “Like I’ve been telling the girls, you can get three-point plays (by driving inside). I think it was a matter of following through (on the game plan) and we didn’t do that. It comes down along the lines of the will and the ‘want’ to compete — not just in the moment of game time, but in and outside of practice.
“Moments like this just expose whether or not you’ve been disciplined to the grind.”
In addition to Thomas, East Jackson is losing two other seniors in Kenzie Whitehead, who finished Tuesday’s game with 11 points before fouling out in the final half-minute, and MiKayla Gadson. But after one of the more successful seasons in program history, Pullen was optimistic that they’ve helped lay the foundation for greater success in the future.
“I would hope so,” Pullen said. “I do appreciate the seniors I’ve had the past two years and they will be greatly missed. But I hope this enlightens the younger players and gives them the insight of something to build on and knowing this is a road we can travel at East Jackson. I think this (season) was a plus for us.”
SC 12 16 8 12 — 48
EJ 13 10 7 11 — 41
SC: Jania Hodges 18, Arielle-Vadrelle Belinga 13, Persia Sanders 8, Jaylyn Durham 5, Leslie Green 4
EJ: Maurissa Thomas 12, Kenzie Whitehead 11, Antonia Pittman 8, Haven Rollins 6, Destiny Rakestraw 4