In survive-and-advance mode, the Jackson County girls’ basketball team was unable to clear a first-round region-tournament hurdle that would have assured it a state tournament berth.
The No. 4-seeded Panthers were upset 36-33 in overtime Monday (Feb. 15) by No. 5 seed Clarke Central, ending their season at 9-12. Jackson County defeated Clarke Central twice in the regular season.
“What I told the girls after the game was it’s hard to beat a team three times, and Clarke Central is well-coached,” first-year Panther coach Christi Thomas said. “Carla (Johnson) has been there as long as I can remember … I knew they were going to come prepared and ready, and I knew they were going to play hard for her because she is such a great coach.”
Mikenna Duffy led Jackson County with 11 points, and Kennedy Harris added 10 points. Harris attempted to send the game to a second overtime, but her 3-point try with time running out missed the mark and Clarke Central (6-14) hung on for the victory.
The Panthers entered the game having won five of their last seven contests, but suffered through a tough night offensively. That including going scoreless for the final 7:42 of the contest.
The foul line also loomed large for Jackson County. The Panthers shot just 7-of-18, including 3-of-12 over the course of the second half and overtime. They went 1-of-6 between the fourth quarter and overtime.
“The free-throw line was a killer (Monday) night and just offense in general,” said Thomas, who noted her team’s struggles with turnovers and running its offense. “Their defense was an unconventional defense, and it just disrupted what we were trying to do. We’re not a great outside shooting team, and so they took away our drives to the basket. And then when we got fouled, we couldn’t convert.”
The team was also shorthanded, missing post player Katie Hitt from the lineup due to injury.
“I think missing Katie was huge,” said Thomas, who had hoped to get Hitt back for this game. “She’s one of our better rebounders.”
Jackson County had beaten Clarke Central, 33-22 and 44-20, in the two previous meetings, and ran out to an 8-2 lead in Monday’s game before it settled into a nip-and-tuck battle. The Panthers trailed for most of the first half after their initial lead.
Duffy tied the game 20-20 with a 3-pointer 16 seconds remaining in the second quarter, but a baseline jump shot from Ayanna Lonon with one second left put the Gladiators ahead 22-20 going into halftime.
Neither team took control in a third quarter that saw a combined eight points. The squads entered the fourth quarter tied 25-25.
Jackson County put together a 6-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer and layup from Harris and a free throw from Namoi Sims to take a 33-30 lead with 3:42 left in regulation. The Panthers, however, wouldn’t score again.
Clarke Central eventually tied the game with a basket from Kiara Holder with 2:31 left and a free throw from Nakia Rucker with 43 seconds remaining.
The Gladiators then scored the only points in overtime with a short jump shot from London at the 1:59 mark and a free throw from Rucker with 1:05 remaining.
Though her team's season ended in the region tournament, Thomas pointed to the strides made this season, praising her team's senior leadership in particular.
“This season has been a little up-and-down, but for the most part, I’m really proud of the growth of our girls and I told them that,” said Thomas, whose team finished with a winning record in region play. “I’m sad that I don’t get those seniors for another year because they really are great seniors and were great leaders on our team.”
Thomas said she believes greater things are in store for the program.
“I’m super proud of those girls,” she said. “They understand that this is a process, and this is just the beginning at Jackson County. We’re trying to create something different and a different culture and that doesn’t happen overnight, but those seniors are the ones that are starting it and nobody else can say that, and I told them that, too. I’m just really proud of our girls and what they’ve done and what they’ve fought through this season and what they’ve fought though the last couple of years.
“So, I’m really appreciative to be their head coach, and I’m just looking forward to what the spring and the summer holds for us.”