On a night when the Kendrick girls didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, they came up with something they haven’t needed all season long.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” coach Sterling Hicks said after the game.
Behind a strong defensive performance and a couple of clutch shots down the stretch, the Lady Cherokees were able to defeat defending champion Lovett 53-43 on Tuesday at home.
With the win, Kendrick (30-0) advances to the Class AA semifinals, where it will face Laney, the only other undefeated team in the classification, on Friday.
“We basically needed to keep doing the things we were doing in the first half,” said Hicks, referring to what he told his team when it trailed by two points at the half. “Our hope and our plan is for other teams to wear out and get tired. I thought down the stretch, they had weary legs. They struggled with their free throws down the stretch.”
What Kendrick does so well and it continued to do in the first half was play pressure defense. While Lovett was able to break down the press more effectively than most of Kendrick’s past opponents, it did wear down at the end, falling victim to turnovers and missed free throws.
When that happened, the Lady Cherokees pounced.
Leading by just two points with seven minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game, Kendrick went on a 13-3 run over the next six and a half minutes to effectively put the game out of reach. It led 51-39 with just over a minute left, and any late-game drama had been avoided.
“(Defense) was the factor,” Hicks said. “That’s what we’re built on. We don’t have a lot of size, but we have a lot of heart and hustle. Those are the things we focus on. You can always play defense. You can’t always be on offense, but you can always play defense.”
Defense was the theme for the game, which is appropriate considering the presence of the NBA’s second all-time leading shot blocker, former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo, who was in the stands to watch his daughter, Carrie, who plays on Lovett.
The Lady Lions (16-13) forced Kendrick into low-percentage shots and even the high-percentage shots in the paint were well-contested.
“Great defense. Great team,” Hicks said of Lovett, which held the Lady Cherokees to their third-lowest point total of the season.
But luck or not, the offense came up with big plays late.
Senior Sierra Porter scored seven of her 14 points in the final frame, including a couple of buckets and a handful of key free throws.
“I just tried to be aggressive and keep my team up,” Porter said about her fourth-quarter performance. “
“We just utilized what they gave us,” said Kahlia Lawrence, who led the team with 16 points.
Sydney Umeri led Lovett in scoring, notching a game-high 26 points.
The Lady Cherokees, at 30-0, are now in the semifinals, just two steps away from reach their ultimate goal of a state championship. Porter said it was exciting, but that the team needed to main focus. Lawrence had the same mindset.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment,” Lawrence said. “That was a goal. Now our goal is to just win this game and get through the final four.”
While it’s easy for his team to get wrapped up in the long winning streak it is on, Hicks stressed that focus is more important now than ever.
“Just take it one at a time,” Hicks said. “This was No. 30. We’re trying to get No. 31.”
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.
Tuesday at Kendrick
Lovett 15 11 8 9—43
Kendrick 11 13 14 15—53
Umeri 26, Mutombo 6, Doyle 4, Selmon 3, Brown 2, Eason 2.
Lawrence 16, Porter 14, Cheatham 8, Thompson 7, McKissic 6, Merritt 2.
Records: Lovett, 16-13; Kendrick, 30-0. Next: Lovett, season over; Kendrick, Friday vs. Laney.