They came into this state championship game undefeated and committed to winning their program’s first title after falling short the previous two seasons in the Final Four.
And these Carver Tigers had to beat the defending Georgia High School Association Class AAAA champion Spalding Jaguars — the team that beat them by seven points in last year’s state semifinals.
Friday in the Macon Coliseum, the Tigers completed their mission with a 56-44 victory over Spalding.
Junior center Olivia Cochran led Carver with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Senior forward Jailyn Shaw had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Sophomore guard/forward Kionna Gaines scored 11 points and senior guard Sadrea Mabry added 10 points.
“It feels great,” Shaw said. “All the hard work paid off. We practiced hard, we made a game plan, and we followed through with it.”
Carver head coach Anson Hundley said, “It’s the best experience of my life. … We found a way to win.”
The winning difference this year, after coming so close the past two seasons — including the 68-67 overtime loss to in-town rival Columbus in the 2017 final — was that these Tigers “believed in it the whole way,” Hundley said.
They continued to believe even when their captain, senior point guard Ja’Nya Love-Hill, left the game with a knee injury in the third quarter.
“She kept cheering the team on,” Hundley said, “and the team kept fighting for her.”
Hundley lifted her as the Tigers celebrated.
“She’s the heart and soul of this team,” he said.
Love-Hill is one of nine seniors on Carver’s 20-player roster.
“They’ve been to three Final Fours, two state championships, and they’ve worked their butts off for four years to have this,” Hundley said. “… There’s something about this group, it just means a lot for me to get the first one.”
Although the Tigers shot only 33 percent from the field, they held the Jaguars to 26 percent. They also finished with advantages in points off turnovers (13-5), second-chance points (14-9) and fastbreak points (8-2).
The Tigers, No. 2 in the MaxPreps GHSA Class AAAA girls basketball rankings, had won all but two of their previous 31 games this season by double digits. But one of those was Saturday’s 74-70 victory over No. 3 Flowery Branch, which had upset No. 1 Henry County 57-50 in the quarterfinals. So the Tigers came into this final against No. 4 Spalding confident they could win another tight game.
They got one in the first half Friday.
Both teams pressured each other with full-court defense from the start, producing poor shooting percentages all around. Carver never trailed and increased the lead by controlling the boards on both ends.
Leading 9-7 with 2:37 left in the first quarter, the Tigers went on a 15-2 run for a 24-9 lead with 5:21 left in the half.
Spalding answered with a 17-5 run that cut the margin to 29-26, but Cochran’s three-point play on a layup and free throw off Love-Hill’s assist gave Carver a 32-26 lead at halftime.
Gaines’ half-court steal and fastbreak lay-in highlighted Carver’s dominating 11-2 third quarter for a 43-28 lead. The Tigers never let the Jaguars within single digits of them again.
“We all fixed our little mistakes that we were making in the first half,” Shaw said.
Those mistakes, Shaw said, were “a couple bad passes.”
After committing 13 turnovers in the first half, Carver limited them to seven in the second half. The Tigers forced Spalding into 23 turnovers.
“We just kept applying pressure,” Hundley said. “I mean, that’s what we do, and that’s how we play. Spalding got in a little foul trouble, and that seemed to hurt them down the stretch, and I think that really helped us out to pull away.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.