CARROLLTON, Ga. — Joe Cherrone never carries preconceived notions into a game with him.
Even after the Columbus High girl’s coach saw his team bludgeon Woodland-Henry 63-32 in the Class AAAA semifinals on Saturday, he refused to say he was surprised. Regardless of what an opponent looks like on film or in person, he said, it has no bearing on the outcome of a game once it tips off.
“That’s something I’ve told my girls all season,” he said. “Each game is different. Each opponent is different. You never know the outcome of the game until you play it.”
Still, the Lady Devils (30-1) left no question how Saturday’s game would end before the fourth quarter even started. Up 47-20 entering the final period, the last eight minutes were merely a victory lap for Columbus. Despite the lopsided win — which has the Lady Devils in the state championship game for the first time since 2004 — it wasn’t difficult for Cherrone to find areas to nitpick.
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Namely, rebounding and catching the basketball.
“The first half we didn’t rebound the ball at all,” he said. “That’s one thing I made known at halftime and the girls came back out and they did that. They got rebounds, they got putbacks and we limited them to only shot instead of five in the first half.”
Though Columbus never trailed after winning the opening tipoff and scoring on the first possession of the game, it allowed Woodland (27-5) numerous opportunities for second chance points in the opening quarter. But once the quarter ended, the Lady Devils still found themselves ahead 14-8. Both teams began to find their rhythms in the second quarter, but it was Columbus that functioned at a higher level, as it took a 31-18 lead into the locker room.
Then came the all-important third quarter.
The Lady Devils played stifling defense, giving up just two points and holding the Wolfpack scoreless for the first five minutes of the quarter. Offensively, Columbus used perfectly placed entry passes to Ariyah Copeland and Tatyana Wyatt, who simply had to lay the ball in against overmatched (and smaller) defenders. The Lady Devils’ field goal percentage on 2-pointers attests to this, as they made 42.6 percent (23 of 54) of their attempts inside the arc. Not that this is out of the ordinary for Columbus.
Getting the ball inside has been an emphasis for the Lady Devils during their playoff run, and that didn’t change Saturday night.
“It’s key for us. I think we have one of the biggest teams — as far as in the paint — in the state of Georgia. We’ve got to take advantage of it,” Cherrone said. “Our girls on the inside are very skilled. They catch the ball, they shoot it well, they put it up on the glass, so we’ve got to feed them.”
Alexia Manning didn’t go hungry, either. The Lady Devils’ senior leader had a game-high 16 points, including 13 in the first half.
“She’s a four-year starter, so it was vital for her to get us going,” Cherrone said. “We looked for it, and It’s important to have that senior leadership out there on the court.”
She and the rest of the Lady Devils will have to be at their best next week in Macon when they take on Redan. The top-ranked team in Class AAAA, the Raiders are 32-0 this season and beat No. 5 South Effingham 60-40 on Saturday, hours before Columbus’ victory. Cherrone and his coaching staff arrived at the University of West Georgia’s Coliseum early enough to watch Redan’s 20-point win.
What did he note in his initial scouting report of the Raiders?
“Everybody likes to shoot the three on that team,” he said. “They kind of live and die by it. Size-wise they’ve got a couple bigs inside, but I still think our post players are a little more skilled. It’s going to be a battle. We’re just going to have to come out and play tight, good defense and make sure we get back in transition.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of trying to stop Redan? Columbus has no experience to draw upon.
Thinking back Cherrone said the Lady Devils haven’t faced a team that spreads the floor and shoots as many 3-pointers as the Raiders.
“They have a lot of good shooters,” he said. “They’ll pull up on a dime and take the shot, so it’s important that we keep some of their best players under wraps.”
But before he began to think ahead to that matchup, Cherrone wanted to revel in the moment. The opportunity to win a state title doesn’t come that often — and the coach didn’t need reminding, knowing that “it’s been a decade” since Columbus was one of the last two teams standing. The time to focus on Redan will come soon enough.
For this night, at least, he wanted to bask in the glow of a victory.
“It’s been a blessing to be able to coach these young ladies,” Cherrone said. “They work so hard in the classroom and on the basketball court, so they deserve this as much as anyone.”
Saturday at Carrollton
Vanessa Blagmon 15, KK Parish 6, Mecca Sneed 6, Zaundra Stevens 5.
Alexia Manning 16, Ariyah Copeland 12, Khayla Lloyd 11, Tatyana Wyatt 7, Jacqueria Gunter 6, Jazmyn McIntosh 6, Shardonee Hayes 4, Brittany Floyd 1.
Records: Columbus, 30-1; Woodland, 27-5. Next: Columbus, vs. Redan; Woodland, season over.