Jefferson girls’ basketball coach Greg Brown said a tough end to the season won’t overshadow his team’s three-and-a-half month body of work.
The Dragons (25-5) fell short of their first Final Four appearance since 2006, losing to Greater Atlanta Christian 54-51 at home Wednesday (Feb. 26) in the quarterfinals.
“We had a great year,” Brown said. “We won 25 ball games. Most people would take that. But I’m going to encourage our kids to look at the positive part of it, and not just what happened tonight.”
The second-year Jefferson coach noted that the team returned to the Elite Eight despite season-long injuries to key players Natalia Bolden and Kendall Bailey.
“It’s sure not a disappointment, I can tell you that,” he said of the year. “I’m not using this as an excuse, but playing without who we’ve missed due to injury all year long, and to be right back where we were at last year, it’s just a testament to how hard these kids work and the amount of belief that they had in what we were trying to do.”
Livi Blackstock led Jefferson with 20 points in the season-ending loss to GAC. Deshona Gaither added 11 points, and Allianne Clark chipped in 10 points in the Dragons’ fourth-consecutive defeat in the quarterfinal round.
Jefferson led 13-12 after a quarter but trailed for most of the final three quarters. The Dragons did pull ahead briefly, 45-44, with a bucket from Courtney Kidd with 5:35 left in the game. But GAC broke a 47-47 tie with a 3-pointer from Jaci Bolden and never trailed again. The Spartans hit seven 3-pointers in the game, compared to two for Jefferson.
“Give them credit … they just hadn’t done that a lot, I’m just going to be honest with you, based on the eight or nine films I watched,” Brown said. “But give them credit. They made some perimeter shots.”
The Dragons had a shot to win late after Gaither hit a driving layup with 1:25 left, cutting the Spartans' lead to 52-51.
But Jefferson turned the ball over twice in the final 30 seconds with a chance to go ahead, the second coming with nine seconds left. Irvin converted two free throws for the Spartans with 1.1 seconds left for the final margin of victory.
In addition to GAC sinking shots from their perimeter, the Spartans used their size, with two players over six feet, to secure some key rebounds.
“We knew coming in that blocking out and rebounding was going to be the big thing,” Brown said. “That’s not what lost the game for us, but they got some big ones late, and it definitely hurt. You just can’t give a team like that more than one shot each possession.”
The Spartans’ size also helped them protect the rim, limiting the Dragons’ lay-up opportunities.
“Not even so much that they blocked a bunch of shots, because they did, but they just altered a lot which changed a lot, and when you’ve got the ability to do that, it’s tough to get stuff in the paint, stuff that we're normally able to get,” Brown said.
Jefferson pressed and forced GAC into mistakes early on, scoring the first six points of the game. But the Dragons only led 13-12 heading into the second quarter.
A 3-pointer from Bolden at the start of the period put the Spartans ahead 15-13. Jefferson later regained the lead at 18-17 with 5:29 in the quarter after a 3-pointer from Blackstock, but it didn’t last. Irvin broke a 22-22 tie with 2:43 left before halftime with a 3-pointer, and GAC led 30-24 going into the break.
Jefferson fell down by nine points at one point in the third quarter before trailing 42-38 heading into the fourth quarter.
Though the Dragons made some big shots in the final period, it was unable to find the basket down the stretch.
“I felt really good about letting them go right there at the end, because we’d been there before,” Brown said. “We’d attacked and done a really good job attacking late in the quarter.
“But give them credit. They got the stops when they needed, and we kind of panicked a little bit down the stretch those last two possessions, and that one's on me. That’s on me. I’ve got to be better.”
Jefferson now looks forward to next season with a roster which will stay largely intact with the graduation of just one senior starter.
“We’re still really young,” Brown said. “That’s the whole deal. We’re losing one kid out there. Sometimes you’ve got to go through the low points to learn and be able to come out on the other end. We’ll learn from it.”