CLINTON — As you wish.
Starkville Academy girls basketball coach Glenn Schmidt hoped her team would get off to a fast start Friday afternoon against Jackson Prep for two reasons.
Not only did Schmidt not want to twist and turn as the Lady Volunteers rallied in the second half from another double-digit deficit, but she also wanted to erase the memory of the last first quarter her team played against the Lady Patriots.
Anna Lea Little and her teammates were only too happy to oblige.
Little had 16 of her team-high 18 points in the first half to lead three players in double figures in Starkville Academy’s 51-41 victory in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools overall state tournament at A.E. Wood Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi College.
“We came out in the first half about as focused as we have played all year,” Schmidt said. “We were extremely focused on what we had to do.”
Starkville Academy (37-5) will take on Madison-Ridgeland Academy, which defeated Leake Academy 53-40 in the other semifinal, at 1 p.m. today for the title. Starkville Academy beat MRA 47-35 to win the Class AAA championship.
After scoring only eight points Wednesday in a victory against Bowling Green (La.) Academy, Little was hot from the start, draining a 3-pointer on the first pass of the possession with 6 minutes, 15 seconds to go in the opening quarter. Little scored inside and outside and usually only had to deal with one set of hands in her face after dealing with multiple hands and bodies crashing at her in the past few games.
Little, a junior forward, said it was a welcome relief to have a little bit of open space to maneuver. She said she could tell early on she had her shooting touch and that the Lady Volunteers were in a rhythm.
“Tonight was huge because I felt like I hadn’t been shooting very well lately,” Little said. “That first half was really big for us.”
Schmidt could tell, too.
“If you leave her open she is going to make some of them,” Schmidt said.
Jackson Prep didn’t focus its defensive attention on one player, but it gave Starkville Academy guards plenty of room to shoot. Tiffany Huddleston (three steals) cashed in on the openings and scored 10 of her 12 points in the first half. The Lady Volunteers used the hot shooting of Little and Huddleston to build a 14-5 lead after one quarter and a 28-11 halftime edge.
“It seemed like (we were clicking) in the first half,” Starkville Academy senior point guard Anna Prestridge said. “We were hitting out shots, we were excited, we were playing good defense, and I think that is what got us the win today, our first-half play instead of our second-half play.”
Schmidt praised Little for playing a controlled game and letting her offense come to her against Bowling Green Academy. She said Jackson Prep gave her space in the last meeting and she hoped it would be the same Friday. She capitalized in the first half and then had equally good looks in the second half but didn’t convert.
“I am always into the game, but I guess I kind of I felt like I was in the zone in the first half,” Little said. “I was able to get some rebounds, too, and it didn’t feel like I had been doing very well in that lately either.”
Jackson Prep shot 2 of 21 in the first half and committed 12 turnovers. It had multiple looks in the lane it couldn’t convert, and went the final 5:58 of the first quarter and the first 1:43 of the second quarter without a field goal.
“That’s as good a defense as we have played all season,” Schmidt said.
The Lady Patriots regrouped in the second half to shoot 12 of 24. They also used a full-court press to push the pace of the game and to force the Lady Volunteers into mistakes.
Jackson Prep had five chances to cut Starkville Academy’s lead below eight points, but it committed turnovers on three of those possessions.
Schmidt had to call a few timeouts to regroup her team, but she didn’t fret and fuss. She said she felt her team was ready to play for pride in part due to a nine-point loss at Jackson Prep in the regular season. Jackson Prep also eliminated Starkville Academy in the Class AAA tournament last season.
“We just played our game and we were very focused,” Schmidt said.
Every other time the Lady Patriots closed in, the Lady Volunteers had the answer. They settled down on enough possessions to work the basketball into sophomore center Sallie Kate Richardson, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half. She also had seven rebounds and three steals. Little (four assists) paced the team with 12 rebounds, while Anna Prestridge led the way with six assists.
Starkville Academy hit 8 of 9 free throws in the final 1:42 to seal the deal.
Today, the Lady Volunteers will look for another title to go with their Division II and Class AAA crowns.
“I just hope we win,” Little said. “We have worked our tails off to get here, and we just want to take advantage of this opportunity. It is what we have hoped for all year.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.