MACON, Ga. Kendrick High seniors Kahlia Lawrence and Deja Cheatham stood in the tunnel after their Class AA state championship game against Wesleyan on Friday, barely able to contain their emotion.
This time, they were tears of joy.
The Lady Cherokees completed a perfect season with a 69-58 victory over Wesleyan at the Macon Centreplex, winning their first state championship since 2008 and second overall. It was only the second girls title for the city of Columbus and snapped a streak of six consecutive state championships for the Lady Wolves, who had won 10 of 12 going into the contest.
"This is what we've worked so hard for," said Lawrence, a wide grin plastered across her face. We made it.
Lawrence, the unquestioned leader and most valuable player for Kendrick, was a big reason why, scoring 25 points to cap off a career in which she set Kendricks all-time scoring record and three single-season scoring records.
She scored 10 points in a crucial third period on Friday, turning a 32-29 halftime deficit into a 47-44 lead going into the fourth. In the first half, she got into foul trouble and drew the ire of coach Sterling Hicks for passing up a couple scoring opportunities.
He told me to do what I had to do, Lawrence said of Hicks instruction. He told me to come out and be aggressive.
Hicks noted later that Lawrence had generously paraphrased his words.
Im not sure I can repeat what I told her, he said with a wry smile, adding: Shes got to score. We expect her to score. Thats why I was so hard on her.
Either way, his encouragement did the trick.
Lawrence knocked down two quick buckets to open the third quarter, erasing the three-point Wesleyan lead and putting Kendrick in front 33-32. The Lady Wolves tied the score at 33 and again at 44, but that was as close as it got for the rest of the contest.
Led by six more in the quarter from Lawrence, the Lady Cherokees held Wesleyan at bay for the rest of the third, never going ahead by more than four but never relinquishing the lead.
With the weight of history against them, the Lady Cherokees built up a lead of 10 points with four minutes, 50 seconds remaining and struggled to withstand the Lady Wolves desperation push.
Cheatham, a fellow senior and Lawrences right hand for most of her high school career, scored five points in the first three minutes of the fourth, preserving Kendricks momentum and giving it the cushion it needed down the stretch.
She finished second on the team in scoring with 16 points. She was asked after the game to put into words her emotions.
I dont know yet, she said with a grin before embracing Lawrence. It was our year. We finally got it.
As it was all season, Kendrick was propelled to victory by an impressive defensive attacking, pressuring the young Wesleyan girls and forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes. The Lady Wolves turned the ball over 31 times in the game, leading to countless opportunities for Kendrick.
It was the first time Wesleyan was held to less than 60 points in a playoff game since it lost the 2007 state championship to Greater Atlanta Christian. Three Wesleyan players notched double figures Nikki McDonald (15 points), Devyn Lowe (12 points) and Mikayla Coombs (11 points) but Kendrick limited the rest of the teams success.
Hicks had avoided speaking too much during the week about Wesleyans dominance in girls basketball over the past decade. He was happy to discuss the subject on Friday.
Its big, he said. Wesleyan has a great program, one of the best in the state. Thats the type of program I want to have here at Kendrick. Like I said the other day, to be the best, youve got to beat the best, and we did.
Friday in Macon
Kendrick 16 13 18 2269
Wesleyan 16 16 12 1458
Kahlia Lawrence 25, Deja Cheatham 16, Farley 9, Thompson 8, A. Jones 5, McKissic 2, Dyson 2, M. Jones 2.
Nikki McDonald 15, Devyn Lowe 12, Mikayla Coombs 11, Booker 8, Frerking 4, Casey 4, Duley 2, Edwards 2.
Records: Kendrick, 31-0; Wesleyan, 27-4