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Tony Kays leaned back in his office chair, then broke into a huge smile.
“This feels as good as if we had beaten anyone else,” he said, reflecting on capturing his Anderson County’s first 30th District championship under his watch.
Anderson had just thumped a good Spencer County team 66-51 for the Lady Bearcats’ first post-season crown of any kind since 1978. Kays was in college and many of the Lady Bearcats’ parents were still in high school, if that old.
Friday, it made little difference that the team on the other side was not Anderson’s old nemesis, Shelby County, which Spencer had eliminated two nights before in a mild upset.
Just savor the moment before getting ready for the Eighth Region tournament.
“This feels good,” Kays said. “We haven’t won one before.”
The Lady Bearcats had been so close in the past. A year ago, they saw a late lead evaporate as Shelby won the district title in overtime. Even though Anderson was rated a 15-20 point favorite, depending on which computer poll one used, the sting of that loss a 364 days before drove the Lady Bearcats to a 24-10 first quarter explosion.
“We didn’t want the same thing to happen again,” said senior guard Makenzie Stoner.
It took all of eight seconds for Anderson to break the ice with Tiffany Davenport’s 3-pointer from the left wing. The Lady Bearcats never trailed.
Anderson’s pressure forced repeated Spencer turnovers – four in the first three minutes – and when Spencer set up in its zone press, the Lady Cats shredded it.
“We didn’t want to give them confidence that they could play with us,” said senior Lindsay Fultz.
Mission accomplished. Spencer, which was going for its first-ever district championship and had not been to a district final in seven years, was so shell-shocked that coach Daniel Cox burned two timeouts inside the first six minutes.
While Spencer valiantly fought back, the early punch was enough for the decision.
“We ended up having to change our game plan early,” Cox said.
Spencer, which had dared Shelby to win from the outside two nights before, had no answer for Fultz’s slashes from the wing or the Anderson pressure. But Spencer perked up when Kenisha Marshall, perhaps the finest post player in the Eighth Region, powered her way for a three-point play at the 5:04 mark of the second quarter. While the play itself only brought Spencer within 30-18, Marshall put her team on her shoulders, scoring nine of its last 11 points in the first half, whittling Anderson’s lead to 34-26.
The Lady Cats denied any let up. “We didn’t let up until the last 30 seconds,” Davenport said.
For his part, Kays said he might have not implored his charges to come as hard defensively. “We might have relaxed a little bit,” he said.
If there had been some relaxation, it was remedied with a half-time adjustment. “We went to our 1-3-1 trap,” Kays said. “We had only used it a couple of times this year but we have been practicing it a lot.”
Anderson reeled off six straight points, but Marshall and classmate Shelby Pfeiffer rallied the Lady Bears to within eight but no closer.
Anderson gradually pulled away, leading by 22 inside the final three minutes. A huge factor was holding Marshall scoreless in the fourth quarter. “She got a little winded,” Cox said. “She has been sick, but that is not an excuse. Anderson played well.”
Inside the last minute, Fultz, Davenport and Stoner all received a thunderous standing ovation as they left their home court for the final time, this time with the elusive championship. All were named all-tournament, as was freshman Sydney Brown.
Davenport seemed to understand the significance as she pointed to a fan behind the Anderson bench.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Kays said. “I have a lot of emotions. I am a little relieved, but mostly I am happy for the girls.”
And Kays might have known that Feb. 27 would be his team’s night. There would be no chance that anyone would catch his team off guard with a title in sight.
“We didn’t want to underestimate anybody,” Stoner said.
“This feels real good,” Fultz said with a huge smile.
Added Davenport, “We wanted to come out and play smart, play hard and play aggressively. If we did that, the scoreboard would take care of itself.”
And as the final seconds ticked off, a 66-51 win in the district final looked mighty good.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.