By Kyle Funderburk
The game itself was sloppy, intensely physical and at times just downright ugly. But that won’t be what head coach Jason Gibson or the rest of the team will remember about their win Saturday night.
Instead they’ll remember the three-pointer Abbie Franklin scored to put the Lady Dragons ahead by five points late in the ball game. They’ll remember McKenzie Tyner and Akira Benton’s layups in the final minutes.
But most of all, they’ll remember being presented the Region 8-AAAA Championship trophy, their prize for going 22-5 in the regular season and 10-0 in region play, sweeping the region tournament and defeating North Oconee in the championship game 42-29.
“I’m just so proud of how they responded to the physical game, really proud of how they responded to them [North Oconee] battling back,” Gibson said. “When Abbie hit that three to put us up by five I knew we were going to have a great shot at winning.”
“I feel like we’re a little deeper and that we battle each other in practice a little harder than a lot of teams do,” Gibson said. “In a game like this it pays off because they’re used to contact, they’re used to being physical and they don’t mind games like this.”
Jefferson (22-5, 10-0) entered the game as favorites being ranked no. 4 in Class AAAA. But North Oconee played them closer than anyone else in the region in both regular season games.
Points were hard to score early in the game, but turnovers were in abundance with 11 in the first quarter, six by Jefferson and five from North Oconee. When the first quarter ended, the Lady Dragons led just 6-4 with four of their points coming from free-throws.
However, both squads picked up their offensive production in the second quarter. First was Jefferson. After a three-pointer by North Oconee’s Emma Weynand to open the quarter, the Lady Dragons started a 10-0 run with a pair of threes from Franklin followed by four points from Nia Johnson.
But North Oconee didn’t stay down and they ended the first half with a 10-0 run of their own with four points from Camryn Williams and Skekya Watson each. That run gave the Lady Titans a 17-16 halftime lead.
In the third quarter both teams matched each other shot for shot and didn’t allow the other to go on any kind of run. The difference, however, was the three-pointers made by Keller Barks and Holly Strowman for North Oconee. That allowed North Oconee to take a 27-25 lead into the fourth quarter.
And then the upper-classmen of Jefferson took over. Lauren Wagner jump started the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to give the Lady Dragons a 28-27 lead. The game was tied for a final time with a free throw by Williams, but a layup by Franklin put Jefferson ahead for good.
Her 3-pointer on Jefferson’s next trip down court was the beginning of the end for North Oconee. Barks split a pair of free throws which kept the margin at two-possessions with a score of 33-29.
“Abbie is that player that gets everybody in rhythm and controls the flow of the game and does a great job and getting us in situations that we need to be in,” Gibson said.
Then McKenzie Ulmer drove down the baseline for two points. Benton’s layup was right after, followed by Tyner’s fast-break three-point-play, and a pair of free throws by Jazmin Allen to end the game on a 14-1 run to win 42-29.
Franklin led the game with 16 points, and she was also named Region 8-AAAA Player of the Year after the game. Allen was second with seven points, five of them from the free throw line.
“It feels awesome, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates though,” said Franklin of winning Region Player of the Year and her second region championship.
“The feeling of winning region before made me want to win again, and it’s awesome for us seniors because this is it for us and to win region in our senior year feels really great,” she said.
The region championship is Jefferson’s fifth all-time and their second under Gibson. Their previous region title was in 2014 in Region 8-AAA. The seniors on this team were freshmen that year and Franklin was a contributor on that team.