Kendrick’s Janai Merritt wasn’t looking for special recognition Saturday during the third annual Herbert Greene All-Star Classic at Columbus State, but earning some made her Georgia all-star squad’s victory over its Alabama counterparts that much sweeter.
Merritt finished with 11 points and six rebounds while fueling the defensive-minded approach she and her Kendrick teammates executed to near perfection all season as Georgia stopped a second-half Alabama rally and held on for a 70-55 victory.
“I wasn’t looking to win MVP; I was just looking to come out, play hard and have a good time since all of us aren’t from the same team,” Merritt said. “But it was fun winning MVP. All these thoughts started racing through my mind, and I couldn’t believe I won MVP for the first time when I had all my family watching.”
The Georgia girls players said the press Kendrick coach Sterling Hicks used for the team translated into easy buckets that allowed them to pull away from the opening moments.
“It was really just defense, basically,” Crawford said. “We were pressuring the ball and playing full-court defense. That’s all it was.”
The Georgia girls scored 12 of the first 13 points of the game and led 17-9 at the end of the first quarter. Repeated turnovers at midcourt allowed Georgia to score eight points, including six by Kendrick’s Jazmin Thomas, in a 30-second span early in the second quarter, and Georgia turned that into a 40-19 halftime lead.
But Alabama found a spark at halftime and began climbing back. Russell County’s Antionna Jefferson scored seven of her team’s 20 points in that quarter, and Alabama held Georgia to one set of consecutive baskets in the third period.
“Our coaches were talking to us in the locker room at halftime and we were talking to each other, and we all said this was our last time playing and representing our high school teams,” said Jefferson, a Fort Valley State commitment who finished with a team-high 17 points and won the girls 3-point-shooting contest after the game. “We had to come out in the second half prepared to give them a run.”
But Georgia used its own runs of four, five and six points in the fourth quarter to stave off Alabama’s hopes of taking control.
GEORGIA 86, ALABAMA 81
Opelika teammates Jacoby Payne and Jamario Mitchell combined to score 19 of the Alabama team’s 36 second-half points in a furious rally, but their Georgia counterparts edged out an 86-81 victory after leading by more than 10 points much of the game.
“We had a lot of talent, and when you have a lot of talent, you’re going to play good,” said Hardaway’s Jamaine Burrey, who was named MVP with 13 points for Georgia. “But we still had to work to pull that out in the second half.”
The Georgia team went out to a 19-8 lead after one quarter and 43-29 at halftime and appeared to be rolling in the opening minutes of the second half.
But Alabama made up some ground in the third quarter, trailing 65-54 at its end after Mitchell hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
Alabama moved to within two points at 79-77 with 3:27 remaining in the game when Smiths Station’s Cameron Porter sank a 3-pointer from the left corner while being fouled and hit the free throw.
Mitchell said the Alabama all-stars were able to get back in the game once they settled in defensively, holding Georgia to 11 points in the third quarter and 19 in the fourth.
“Early in the game the scoreboard was telling us we weren’t playing very good defense,” Mitchell said. “We had a whole different mindset in the second half. We were back playing defense and trying to get back on top.”
Payne made it a two-point game again with 14.3 seconds left when he put back the rebound on a missed 3-point attempt to make it 83-81. But Georgia came through with a three-point play to seal the game when Kendrick’s Cameron Baker offered up an alley-oop to Carver’s Jarvis Bentley, who laid the ball in the basket and hit the ensuing free throw for the final score.
Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite and at facebook.com/lechriswhite.
@z-BR Agate Bold Centered:Saturday at CSU
Alabama 9 10 20 16 -- 55
Georgia 17 23 11 19 -- 70
Antionna Jefferson 17, Achaia Cobb 10, Hightower 7, V. Bellamy 5, Bentley 5, Paige 4, Whatley 4, Scott 3
Jazmin Thomas 14, Janai Merritt 11, Khamiyah Crawford 11, Lewis 8, Hood 8, Walker 8, Nguyen 3, Williams 2, Lawrence 1
@z-BR Agate Bold Centered:BOYS
Saturtday at CSU
Alabama 8 21 25 27 -- 81
Georgia 19 24 22 21 -- 86
Shantoine Levy 15, Jacoby Payne 12, Mitchell 9, Porter 9, Johnson 7, Nolen 6, Jackson 6, Henderson 6, Crawford 5, Hannah 4, Hollis 2,
Jamaine Burrey 13, Cameron Baker 12, Valenta Williams 10, Elbert Elliot 10, Adams 8, Jones 8, Belfield 7, Dixon 4, McFarland 4, Bentley 4, Pascall 2, Short 2