The Lady Panthers’ March to Macon and to the state championship
AMERICUS – It all started on Saturday, November 23, when the Americus-Sumter High School girls’ varsity basketball team began their quest for a state championship by beating Lee County 56-33. From that point, the Lady Panthers (28-2) reeled off 15 consecutive wins in a row before they lost their first game of the season to their Region 1-AAAA nemesis and defending Class AAAA state champion Carver-Columbus Lady Tigers by the score of 56-46 on Saturday, January 14, in Columbus.
After losing 60-56 in overtime to the Lady Tigers in the Region 1-AAAA Tournament final, the Lady Panthers would not lose again for the rest of the season. They took out Burke County at home 49-32 in the first round of the state playoffs and followed that up with a 33-32 win at Marist in the second round. ASHS would then go on the road again, this time to Griffin, GA, and defeat Spalding 47-42 in the Elite 8. This put them in the Class AAAA State Semifinals, where they would take on the Luella Lady Lions at Fort Valley State University.
It took overtime to get it done, but the Lady Panthers were able to do just that. ASHS defeated Luella 56-51 to advance to the Class AAAA State Championship at the Macon Centerplex on Friday, March 6. They faced the Lady Tigers of Troup, who had toppled Carver-Columbus in the semifinals and had lost only one game all year.
However, the Lady Panthers would not let this moment slip away. ASHS took a 17-9 lead in the first quarter of the game and maintained that lead all the way to a 66-52 victory, claiming the school’s second state championship in girls’ basketball since Americus High and Sumter County High merged to form the current Americus-Sumter High School over a decade ago. Their first state title since that merger was earned by the 2015-2016 team that went 31-1 and defeated Veterans 56-38 on March 3, 2016, to win that state championship.
The heart and soul of this year’s state championship team is a group of five seniors: Jelissa Reese, Trinity Jones, Divine White, DeAsia Ford and Brianna Pope. Two of these seniors, Reese and Jones, both transferred over from Crisp County and Fitzgerald respectively, while Pope and Ford have been forged under fire and tested as they helped lead the Lady Panthers to the GHSA Class AAAA Final Four in 2018. That year, as sophomores, Pope and Ford were key contributors to a team that only used seven players. That team that went “seven deep” was two wins away from bringing home a state championship to Sumter County and finished with a record of 24-8.
Two years later, Ford and Pope are now seniors and both are better for having had the experience of the success of the 2017-2018 team.
Both Reese and Jones have proven to be huge factors in the Lady Panthers’ success. Reese is averaging 21.7 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game and 3.4 assists per game. Jones is averaging 14.4 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game and 4.9 assists per game for the Lady Panthers. Jones has also used her experience from her time at Fitzgerald. During the 2018-2019 season, she averaged 20.3 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game to lead the Purple Hurricanes to a 27-1 record and to the state quarterfinals of the GHSA Class AA State Basketball Tournament. Just to give the reader an idea of the impact that Jones had on the Purple Hurricanes and the impact she is currently having on the Lady Panthers, Fitzgerald did not have the season this year that they had a year ago as the Purple Hurricanes finished 9-16.
However, Reese and Jones can’t do it all and they haven’t had to as Pope and Ford have used their experience to help the team as well. Pope is averaging six points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game, while Ford has averaged 5.9 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game. On the defensive end of the floor, Ford has also gotten it done as she is averaging 3.5 steals per game. According to ASHS head coach Sherry Harris, while she doesn’t score a lot of points, Ford does a lot of the little things that need to be done and has become an important factor in the success of the team.
One other senior that has proven to be a key contributor is Divine White. In 20 games played, White has averaged four points a game and 2.3 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, she recently suffered a season-ending injury, but was an important contributor for the Lady Panthers in their run for a state championship.
The contributions of the team’s underclassmen cannot be ignored either. In 26 games, sophomore center Trinity Jackson has come up big for ASHS. Jackson is averaging 8.1 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game. Her classmate, sophomore guard Tiffani Goodman, is averaging 7.9 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game. Goodman is also dishing out an average of 2.8 assists per game and is getting it done on defense, averaging three steals per game.
Though she has seen limited action this year, sophomore Kaylin Holley has also contributed to the Lady Panthers’ cause. When Jones fouled out against Luella, Holley was called upon in the late stages of that game and performed admirably. Being that she is a sophomore, Holley will have plenty of time to develop into a solid player for ASHS.
Throughout the season, the Lady Panthers have created their offense by using their defense to turn other teams over. Their quickness and athleticism have enabled them to force their opponents to commit turnovers. In turn, ASHS would turn those turnovers into points. On numerous occasions this season, the Lady Panthers implemented a full-court press and forced several turnovers. As a result, they amassed a double-digit lead very quickly and early, giving their opponents no hope of getting back in the game. Very few teams that the Lady Panthers played during this season could handle their defensive pressure.
There was only one team that kept ASHS from having a perfect, undefeated season so far. That team was Carver-Columbus. The 2018-2019 Class AAAA state champions, who were defeated by Troup in this year’s state semifinals, defeated the Lady Panthers twice. Those two losses were the only losses of the season that ASHS suffered.
Though they fell to Carver-Columbus 60-56 in overtime in the Region 1-AAAA Tournament Championship, the Lady Panthers were still able to have home-court advantage in the first round as the #2 seed out of their region. Their opponent in the first round of the state playoffs was Burke County (14-10), the #3 seed out of Region 2-AAAA. ASHS quickly jumped out to an 18-3 lead in the first quarter by using their defense to create their offense. The Lady Bears outscored ASHS 14-12 in the second quarter, but the Lady Panthers maintained their double-digit lead and won 49-32 to advance to the second round.
Their next opponent posed a much tougher test. The Lady Panthers traveled up to Atlanta to take on the Lady War Eagles of Marist (MHS), who came into that game with a record of 26-1. The Lady Panthers got off to a rough start in the first quarter. They weren’t able to score a point and were down 11-0 to start the second quarter.
MHS came into this game with the strategy of double teaming Reese, which worked during the first quarter, but her teammates picked up the slack during the rest of the game and the Lady Panthers were able to use their defense to keep the Lady War Eagles in check, especially during the fourth quarter. With tree seconds left and the Lady Panthers up 33-32, Tyler Brazle had a chance to win the game for the Lady War Eagles at the foul line. However, Brazle missed both free throws and ASHS escaped Atlanta with the 33-32 victory.
While she was happy with the win, Coach Harris was extremely concerned with how poorly her club was shooting free throws and feared that it would be their Achilles heel.
The quarterfinal game at Spalding (23-5) was by no means any easier for ASHS.
After one quarter of play, both teams were tied at 10-10. The remainder of the game was evenly matched between both teams, but the big difference was foul shooting in the second half. The Lady Panthers hit 10 of 14 foul shots against the Lady Jaguars in the second half and won 47-42 to advance to the Final Four at Fort Valley State University.
ASHS would be taking on a fine squad from Luella (LHS). The Lady Lions came into this game with a record of 25-5. LHS had an 11-6 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Lady Panthers came to life in the second quarter as they outscored the Lady Lions 20-5 to take a 26-16 lead at the half. The Lady Lions fought back in the third quarter, outscoring ASHS 20-10 to tie the game at 36-36. Eventually, the game could not be decided after four quarters of play and both teams went into overtime tied at 51-51.
During regulation, the Lady Panthers struggled once again at the foul line. They were only able to make seven of 15 free-throw attempts.
However, the Lady Panthers made more plays in overtime than did LHS and ASHS went on to win 56-51, setting up the state championship showdown with Troup (27-1) at the Macon Centerplex Friday morning, March 7, at 11 a.m.
It was a year ago at this time that the ASHS boys’ team went to the state finals against Carver-Columbus. Hundreds of people from Americus and throughout Sumter County came up to watch them play. The same was true this year.
Numerous Panther fans made the drive up I-75 to Macon. Schools throughout Sumter County closed on Friday, as did some businesses, so that people were able to come and throw their support behind the Lady Panthers. They gathered in Macon to “flex at the plex” and to cheer on the white, blue and gold, but unlike last year year, the Lady Panthers (29-2), who didn’t even make the state playoffs a year ago, were able to bring home to Sumter County that coveted state title.
As a result, all five Lady Panther seniors: Jelissa Reese, Divine White, Trinity Jones, Brianna Pope and DeAsia Ford, went out in glorious fashion. They, along with the underclassmen coming back next year, will always be remembered as state champions.