When Columbus High began its 2013-14 girls basketball season, the state championship was hardly on the radar of most casual observers.
It was a team coming off a quick one-and-done playoff appearance a year ago. Two years ago, it lost in the second round. Before that, it hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008.
Flash forward a few months, and the Lady Blue Devils are still playing. They will face Redan High at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Macon Centreplex in Macon. Columbus is trying to clinch its first girls state title in school history.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Columbus senior Jacqueria Gunter said on Tuesday. “We’ve made it to the state playoffs before, but I’ve never come this far. It’s crazy.”
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Columbus made it here with a combination of strong play from its senior guards, Gunter and Alexia Manning, and a dominant interior presence. The Lady Blue Devils have three girls taller than 6-feet: sophomore Shardonee Hayes (6-foot-3) and freshmen Tatyana Wyatt (6-foot-2) and Ariyah Copeland (6-foot-2).
Coach Joe Cherrone said he’s hoping that size equates to a lot of rebounds and putbacks, considering Redan is a smaller, more guard-oriented team.
Cherrone said he had gotten film on his opponent in addition to watching it in its final four victory over South Effingham. He came away feeling like Redan was a team of solid outside shooters, but one which could live and die by the three-pointer.
“They like to shoot the three,” he said. “In the first two minutes of the game I watched, they shot five or six threes. It’s almost a live-and-die situation. Not a lot of postgame. If we can limit them to one shot and miss, that’s really going to improve our chances.”
And what if they don’t miss those shots?
“If they come out and hit a couple early on, we’ll have to tighten up and put some pressure on them outside and rely on our help-side defense,” Cherrone said, adding with a laugh: “I just hope they’re not on. I’m hoping we’re on and they’re off.”
That may be wishful thinking. Redan hasn’t really been off all season. Sporting a 33-0 record, the Lady Raiders have won every game but two by double digits.
Columbus meanwhile has had to work a little bit more for its 30-1 record. It has had some close wins that came down to the final minutes of the game, wins that Manning and Cherrone directly attribute to their one loss of the season (to Northside High in the Shaw Christmas tournament).
“If we didn’t lose that game, I’m not sure we would have been able to win some of those close games in the region, which helped get us here,” Cherrone said.
“It helped a lot,” Manning added. “After that, everything changed. If we didn’t lose that game, I don’t think we’d be here right now.”
But they are there, one win from achieving a goal that was little more than a talking point at the beginning of the season.
Gunter said the players’ adrenaline would be rushing and blood pumping when they take the court on Thursday.
“We’ve got this, though,” she said. “We have to get this.”
Manning said she and her teammates know the worst is a possibility, that they can’t escape the game with a victory. If that happens, though, it will be because Redan earned it.
“We’re confident,” she said. “We know we can compete with anybody. We’re not intimidated. If they beat us, they’re going to have to earn it.”
CLASS AAAA STATE CHAMPIONSHIP: COLUMBUS GIRLS VS. REDAN
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Macon Centreplex (Macon, Ga.)
Records: Columbus, 30-1. Redan, 33-0
How they got here: Columbus, def. Gilmer County 73-34 in first round, def. Marist 50-37 in second round, def. Columbia 61-52 in quarterfinals, def. Woodland 63-32 in semifinals; Redan, def. Walnut Grove 97-38 in first round, def. NW Whitfield 67-35 in second round, def. Fayette County 52-45 in quarterfinals, def. South Effingham 60-40 in semifinals.
You need to know: Columbus is going for its first state title in school history. Redan has won all but two games by double digits. Redan won the 2009 state championship in Class AAAAA.