Published 4:28 pm Friday, February 9, 2024
AHOSKIE – It’s not how you start, but how you finish.
Despite hitting just one of their first 13 shots over the opening 12 minutes, Ridgecroft drained four straight baskets with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, highlighting a 13-0 run that allowed the Lady Rams to claim the Tarheel Independent Conference tournament championship with a 36-27 win over Lawrence Academy here Thursday night.
The victory allowed the Lady Rams to complete the regular season and conference tournament with a spotless 20-0 record.
“What a year it has been. In my 21 years of coaching and a ton of success at other schools, I have never enjoyed anything like this,” said first-year Lady Rams skipper Billy Jenkins who was named as the conference’s Coach of the Year.
“The championship game vs. Lawrence was a grind, just like I expected it to be,” Jenkins noted. “I knew if we ever got the lead we could start using our press and we would extend our lead.”
However, getting the lead when the shots weren’t finding their mark was going to take a lot of work, especially against Lawrence’s 1-2-1 zone defense, which forced the Lady Rams to turn the ball over seven times in the first quarter alone.
Ridgecroft’s only successful shot of the opening period was a three-pointer by Makenzie Slaughter.
Trailing 9-3 early in the second quarter, the Lady Rams used a brief flurry of baskets – one each by Slaughter, Karley Jo Rose, Camryn Taylor, and Kate Chamblee – to take 13-11 lead.
Lawrence’s Ellie Farmer beat the first half buzzer with a basket that sent the two teams into intermission tied at 13-13.
Both teams struggled offensively in the third period (Ridgecroft: 1-of-14 from the floor; Lawrence: 1-of-13). Tied at 15-15, Slaughter gave her team an 18-15 advantage when she drilled a three-pointer from the right corner as the buzzer sounded to end the quarter.
A basket by Chamblee to open the fourth quarter staked the Lady Rams to their largest lead of the game at that point (20-15).
Lawrence rallied as Trinity Congleton reeled off six straight points (two free throws followed by back to back baskets) to hand the Lady Warriors a 21-20 lead with 5:01 left.
Single free throws by Klaire Cherry, Molly Brown, and Chamblee sent Ridgecroft back to the front, leading 23-21 with 3:27 left.
Cherry, off a feed from Chamblee, ignited Ridgecroft’s late run with a basket. Then, after a Lawrence turnover – one of six costly miscues for the Lady Warriors in the fourth quarter – Cherry scored again, extending the Lady Rams lead to 27-21 with 2:33 remaining.
But Ridgecroft still wasn’t done.
After a Lawrence miss, Chamblee grabbed the defensive rebound and dribbled the length of the court for a layup at the other end. Seventeen seconds later, Slaughter’s perfect entry pass to Brown resulted in a short range basket that allowed Ridgecroft to build a double-digit lead, 31-21, with 1:34 left.
Slaughter, who was later named as the conference’s Player of the Year as well as earning the Tournament MVP award, sealed the win by draining five-of-six free throws in the game’s final 62 seconds.
After the game, Jenkins reflected on the successful season.
“From the first day of practice when I stepped back and thought wow, what have I got myself into, these girls can never play at my pace, they proved me wrong,” he said. “We started out by winning the Eric Baggett tournament (at Bethel Christian) where we looked very sloppy, but scrappy. Then we go play at Brunswick Academy, the defending Virginia state runner-up, where we rallied from down 14 points in second half to win by one. Then we go to Rocky Mount Academy, a class 2A school, in a game we are not supposed to win, and we came home with a victory.
“Then there were the two regular season games vs. Lawrence, both intense and electric environments. At their place (the second time the two teams met), the whole team had the flu. There is no way we are supposed to win that, we didn’t practice all week, but again this team reached deep and found a way to win. Then we go to Northeast and Hannah (Slaughter) has an ACL injury. The next day I knew our pace of play would slow and we would start relying on lockdown defense and using our effective havoc pressure at key points in games. That’s what they did and that’s how we finish this part of our season at 20-0.”
The Lady Rams will now wait to see where they are seeded in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association’s state tournament that begins next week.
Lady Rams (36)
Makenzie Slaughter – 14, Kate Chamblee – 9, Klaire Cherry – 5, Molly Brown – 3, Karley Jo Rose – 3, Camryn Taylor – 2.
Lady Warriors (27)
Trinity Congleton – 13, Ellie Farmer – 5, Samantha Hughson – 4, Jaslene Ethridge – 2, Camy Pippins – 2, Claire Smith – 1.