Kendrick High girls basketball coach Sterling Hicks wasn’t too worried one way or the other which team the Lady Cherokees would face in Friday’s Class AA state championship game.
It didn’t matter that the two teams battling for the other spot in the game last Saturday both presented distinct challenges: Laney defeated Kendrick in the final four last season, while Wesleyan is a six-time defending state champ.
Wesleyan came out on top in that game and will face Kendrick at 3 p.m. Friday at the Macon Centreplex, but Hicks isn’t treating this opponent any different than the others.
“We’re just going to play the way we’ve been playing,” he said. “It was good enough to get us this far, and I know it’s good enough to win. It’s just whether we make our shots or not.”
It’s the same demeanor he’s presented all season, despite challenges and traps that could have tripped up his team at any moment. Key players like Deja Cheatham and Margarnique McKissic have battled injuries all season. An epic quarterfinal against Greater Atlanta Christian went into overtime with Kendrick’s best player on the bench with five fouls.
And yet, his team is here, one win away from a perfect season and the second state championship in school history.
His players reflect his calm approach. Lawrence, the senior leader on this squad, echoed his words.
“I understand it’s the finals, but we want to play like we have been playing,” she said. “It’s been good enough so far.”
That isn’t to say the Lady Cherokees won’t have their hands full on Friday. They understand that, against a team that has finished the season on top each of the past six years, they will face poise and experience unlike any other game thus far.
Hicks watched Wesleyan defeat Laney in the semifinals last Saturday, trailing most of the game only to take over late as it has done for the better part of a decade.
“They were calm,” he said. “Real poised. When they got down, they didn’t get rattled. It was two good teams going at it, and Wesleyan found a way to win like they always do.”
The Lady Wolves are younger than in past years, led by only two seniors on the roster. Coach Jan Azar admitted as much after her team’s semifinals victory.
“We’re a young team,” she said. “Kendrick has more experienced players. They have a girl (Lawrence) who is very fast and very good with the ball. We’ll have to play better against them than we did today.”
There’s experience, and then there’s experience. The kind of experience Wesleyan has, Kendrick still lacks. None of its players have played in a state championship, much less won multiple titles.
Hicks knows there’s only one way to gain that experience.
“We just have to go out there and go hard,” he said. “You have to. The biggest thing for me is making sure we play to the end. The rest will take care of itself.”
Wesleyan will feature a moderate size advantage, though Kendrick’s aggressive press could force it into a pace it isn’t comfortable with.
Lawrence will lead the way once again for the Lady Cherokees as she has all season, averaging 26.2 points per game. Hicks said it’s going to take a full performance from the entire roster to come out on top, though.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” he said. “There’s no other way around it. Right now they’re the best.”
Kendrick is playing in its first state championship since it won it all in 2008. It also played and lost the 2005 final. It is trying to win its second championship in school history.
CLASS AA STATE CHAMPIONSHIP: KENDRICK GIRLS VS. WESLEYAN
When: 3 p.m. Friday
Where: Macon Centreplex (Macon, Ga.)
Records: Kendrick, 28-0. Wesleyan, 27-3
How they got here: Kendrick, def. Model 71-34 in first round, def. Rabun County 90-34 in second round, def. GAC 65-62 in OT in quarterfinals, def. Putnam County 75-50 in semifinals; Wesleyan, def. Union County 82-26 in first round, def. Calhoun 84-47 in second round, def. Jefferson 64-33 in quarterfinals, def. Laney 68-64 in semifinals.
You need to know: Wesleyan has won six consecutive state championship games. Kendrick is going for its first state title since 2008 and second overall. Kendrick’s Kahlia Lawrence is Kendrick’s all-time leading scorer.