EDISON — After cementing itself in Tiger history by becoming the first team in 32 years to reach the Final Four, the Commerce girls’ basketball team fell just short of adding to that legacy.
The Tigers’ season ended Friday (March 5) in the Class A-Public semifinals with a 46-38 loss at Calhoun County.
“We knew that tonight was going to be a tough, tough matchup,” Commerce coach Brad Puckett said. “But, man, I’m proud of our girls. They fought. They fought all night long. They never quit, without a doubt. Nobody in here saw them quit. I couldn’t be more proud. Disappointed? Yeah. But I hope that Commerce Lady Tiger basketball has stepped into a new era and changed the culture moving forward from here on out.”
Facing a considerable size disadvantage, the second-seeded Tigers (19-11) — who traveled four hours for the game — played stride-for-stride with the top-seeded Cougars for over three quarters.
But Calhoun County grabbed a 33-26 lead early in the fourth quarter and never relinquished it, ending Commerce’s most successful postseason run in over three decades.
“We knew that we didn’t match up with them on any part of the court,” Puckett said. “We hoped that we could play a little faster than them. We went with a little faster lineup in the second half. But they’re so big and so strong and No. 35 (Jakia Davis) just won’t let you get close to the basket.”
The game’s first half was dominated by defense.
Commerce, seeking to become the first team in program history to advance to the state finals, held a 9-8 lead after a quarter. Bryanna Sanders then connected on a 3-pointer early in the second quarter, upping the lead to 12-8. But those were the lone points from Commerce in the period. Calhoun County scored the last eight points of the quarter to take a 16-12 halftime lead.
The Tigers’ best run came in the third quarter with a 12-2 spurt — behind two 3-pointers from Sanders and one each from Carson Hobbs and Anna Taylor — to push ahead 24-20. The teams, however, entered the fourth quarter tied 26-26.
A key sequence then unfolded early in the final period. Calhoun County’s Maya Wins scored the opening basket of the period and Ayunna Mansfield followed with a 3-pointer. On the other end of the floor, a blocked shot led to a run-out layup for Destiny Hightower, increasing the lead to 33-26 with 6:06 left — the Cougars’ biggest lead of the night to that point.
Commerce rallied to try to keep its season alive, however. Sanders’ 3-pointer with 2:02 cut the deficit to 38-37, but the Tigers didn’t hit a shot from the field the rest of the way. Calhoun County ended the game by converting 3-of-4 free throws in the final 18 seconds.
Sanders, a 1,000-point career scorer for the Tigers, finished with 18 points, including five 3-pointers, in her final high school game. The loss ended the careers of seniors Sanders, Emma Davis and Maggie Mullis.
“These seniors, they’ve meant the world to this program,” Puckett said. “They’ve been the glue that’s held us together this year, all three of them. We’re going to miss them so much next year. No way you can replace any of them. We’ve just got to have somebody new willing to step up next year.”
The season included 19 wins and a Final Four run that will be signified on a banner in the Tigers’ gym. Puckett said this team was “hungry” for success this year.
“One of the songs that we play around here all of the time is Eye of the Tiger,” he said. “It’s kind of become a cliché, but I told the girls that song talks about being hungry. I said ‘Y’all were hungry this year.’
“‘You had a look in your eye that this isn’t going to be just another Lady Tiger season where we just kind of have average.’ They had a hungry look in their eye. They went after what they wanted this year and just came up short tonight.”
Students of Commerce Schools held signs and lined the driveways of their campuses as part of a morning send off for the Tigers on their trip to Calhoun County for the Final Four. Players also signed autographs for students at Commerce Elementary School before embarking on the four-hour ride to southwest Georgia. Supporters gathered along a stretch of Broad St. in downtown Commerce to cheer on the team as its chartered bus left town.
A strong continent of Commerce fans also made the trip to Calhoun County to watch the girls team play in its first semifinals game since 1989.
“Phenomenal, phenomenal,” Puckett said. “Community support has just been unbelievable. From the beginning this morning, it literally brought tears to my eyes. I mean that. It really did … And the crowd behind us cheering, making noise, making a four-hour trip. These girls appreciate it, and I appreciate it. Love our little community of Commerce … They were without a doubt our Sixth Man this year.”