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Americus-Sumter Girls’ remarkable season comes to an end

 

FT. VALLEY, GA – It started in the Summer, individual work-outs, conditioning and players working on their skills. Then November came and the first day of practice. Then the preparation for the first game of the season, the wind sprints, the sweat, the hard work. Then came the grinding three-month regular season, then the Region 1-AAAA Tournament. It all prepared the Americus-Sumter Girls Basketball Team for this moment. They were one win away from playing for a state championship. They went up against the War Hawks of Henry County (28-1) in the GHSA Class 4A State Semifinals. Though they fought valiantly throughout the game, turnovers in the second half, and too many second-chance opportunities for the War Hawks were factors in Americus-Sumter (24-8) losing to Henry County 51-38 on Friday afternoon, March 2, at Ft. Valley State University.

The Panthers played in front of a large contingent of dedicated ASH fans dressed in yellow shirts that said “Final Four” on the front and “7 Deep” on the back. The Panthers had gotten to this point with just seven players, making it an even more remarkable accomplishment.
The Panthers fought hard to the very end in this game, as one would expect in a state semifinal. However, The Panthers had trouble scoring down the stretch, largely due to the defense of the War Hawks, who keyed in on Americus-Sumter’s leading scorer, Jykiera Long.

“They went to a box and one on Jy Long. Everybody else was standing around. I’m like, ‘Attack! Just play’. We worked on it, but, you know, in real life, it’s somewhat difficult,” Americus-Sumter Head Coach Sherri Harris said. “We just couldn’t get it done. I thought the officiating was actually pretty decent. They allowed us to play, and we want to play a physical game anyway. It was a little bit one-sided as far as the fourth quarter, and mainly because at the end, we were fouling to stop the clock. Other than that, I thought it was a pretty well-officiated game. We just couldn’t put that ball in the basket. They sort of pulled away. I think we got the deficit back to six. There were two or three possessions where we just turned the ball over. Against a good team like that, you can’t do that, not when you’re trying to win a state championship.”

With a little over five minutes to go in the game, Henry County had the ball. Jykiera Long tried to get into position against the War Hawks’ Amaiya Jackson to draw the charge. Long appeared to have established position before she was knocked down, but the call went against Long for a blocking foul. As far as that call was concerned, Harris’s take was that you simply have to move on. “It may have been a charge, but we always and I always coach for the next possession,” Harris said. “A lot of times, it could be a horrible call, or a good call depending upon how many points we’re up or down. I thought we still had an opportunity when the lead was six or eight points at about the three-minute mark. We could have got back in the game. I think Deasia Ford went to the basket, like, once or twice.” Harris went on to say that her team will grow from this experience. “They’ve never been on this stage before. Ford and Brianna Pope are both sophomores. They’ll get a chance to hopefully come back here again.”

Americus-Sumter’s Deasia Ford fighting for the ball against Henry County’s Amaiya Jackson.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

In spite of the loss, Harris was extremely proud of the way her team had been playing up to this point, particularly on defense and particularly with having to make long road trips. She mentioned the long trip to Burke County, where the Panthers got a 39-25 win. She also mentioned the long road trip to play Marist in Atlanta. “I think Marist was ranked number one for pretty much most of the year,” Harris said. The Panthers got a big 42-37 win over Marist to get to the state semifinals. “I thought we played well. We had a pretty good game plan,” Harris said. “Even tonight, I thought we stopped them, or controlled them. Our biggest thing was that we were trying to take away the transition baskets. In the third and fourth quarter, they (Henry County) got a couple on us. We kind of withstood, but we just got stagnated. We couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”  In this game against Henry County, one big factor in the outcome was that the Panthers gave up too many second-chance opportunities. “We pretty much pattern our game and ourselves as a defensive team,” Harris said. “What was happening was we were stopping them. They were missing their shots, but they got second or third chance opportunities. Those things will kill you because what happens is, on that second or third chance, the defense becomes frustrated. That puts us in a bad situation, but overall, I thought we played well. We gave up too many second-chance opportunities.”

ASH Senior guard Jykiera Long led the Panthers in scoring with 13 points. Deasia Ford scored eight points and Brianna Pope had six. Henry County had two players in double figures. Amaiya Jackson led all scorers with 17 points and Brooke Moore had 11.

The War Hawks jumped out to a 9-0 lead on ASH. The Panthers struggled to score during the first few minutes of the first quarter. ASH didn’t score until the 4:33 mark when Jykeria Long scored to make it 9-2 Henry County. The Panthers outscored the War Hawks 4-2 in the next minute, with Long hitting a running one-hander off the backboard. At this point, it was 11-6 Henry County. With under a minute left, Deasia Ford scored to cut the War hawks’ lead to 11-8. With 42.5 seconds left in the first quarter, Henry County’s Jamaya Wadsworth was fouled and hit both free throws. However, Ford drove right through the Henry County defense and scored, cutting the deficit to 13-10 by the end of the first quarter.

With 7:14 left in the half, Long drove to the basket and scored, cutting the War Hawks’ lead to 13-12. The Panthers, who were down 11-2, had gone on a 10-2 run to get back in the game. Henry County went back up 16-12 on a three-pointer by Brooke Moore with a little over five minutes left in the half. Henry County’s Janiya Jones was fouled, but made one of two foul shots. Then Amaiya Jackson scored for the War Hawks, and they increased their lead to 19-12 with under four minutes left in the half. Then with 2:09 to play, the Panthers got a basket by Tykiera Long off a beautiful in-bounds play. This began a 6-0 run by ASH, which got them to within one at 19-18. With 50 seconds left, Americus-Sumter decided to hold for the last shot. They held the ball all the way down to the last second. Jykiera Long tried a three-pointer with 1.3 seconds left, but it was an air ball. Both teams went to the locker room with Americus-Sumter down 19-18. That would be as close as Americus-Sumter would get. They never had the lead in this game.

Jykiera Long led the attack in the first half for Americus-Sumter, scoring eight first-half points. Both Deasia Ford and Brianna Pope had four first-half points. As for Henry County, Brooke Moore led their offense with six first-half points and Janiya Jones had five in the first half for the War Hawks.

Americus-Sumter Senior guard Shidajah Johnson, one of four seniors playing their final game as a Lady Panther.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Henry County got on the board first in the second half when Amaiya Jackson scored, however, Deasia Ford responded with a basket of her own to keep the deficit at 21-20 Henry County. However, Jackson was fouled on the War Hawks’ next possession, and made both foul shots. The War Hawks got another basket, increasing their lead to 25-20. The War Hawks were getting several second-chance rebounds. During this period, with around five minutes left in the third, ASH hit a scoring drought. The drought ended when Shidajah Johnson went coast to coast and scored. However, Henry County extended their lead to 28-22. The War Hawks then forced a turnover, but missed a layup. Both teams went through sequences where they missed easy shots. With 1:34 to go, Americus-Sumter was down 30-24 and had the ball, but turned it over. Henry County kept getting second-chance rebounds, but couldn’t convert. Then with 45.7 seconds to go, Shidajah Johnson scored on the inside to cut the War Hawks’ lead to 30-26. At this point, ASH Coach Sherri Harris called timeout to settle her club down.

However, out of the timeout, Amaiya Jackson drove right through the ASH defense and scored to put their lead back up to 32-26, but Ford was able to score just as the horn sounded. ASH trailed 32-28 to start the fourth quarter.

Both teams pushed the ball up the floor to start the fourth quarter, but both teams were out of control at times, committing turnovers. Jamaya Wadsworth scored the first two points of the quarter to give Henry County a 34-28 lead. However, Shidajah Johnson was fouled while shooting and made one of two free throws.
With a little over five minutes to go, Amaiya Jackson tried to drive to the basket. Jykiera Long jumped in her path to draw the charge and was knocked down, but the referee called a blocking foul against Long. However, ASH was able to get a basket, cutting the War Hawks’ lead to 35-31. Then the Panthers got the ball back, and Long was fouled. She sank both foul shots, cutting Henry County’s lead to 35-33 with 4:35 left in the game.

Deasia Ford going up for a rebound against several Henry County players.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

With 4:11 to go, Amaiya Jackson was fouled while shooting, and hit both foul shots. Then ASH turned it over and Henry County scored off the turnover. The War Hawks had a 39-33 lead. At this point, Harris called timeout with 3:40 to go. However, the Panthers turned it over again, and Brooke Moore was fouled while shooting. she hit both foul shots, giving the War Hawks a 41-33 lead. However, Jykiera Long hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to five, but Henry County scored moments later, and the lead was back up at 43-36. Americus-Sumter was unable to score on their next possession, and Moore, who was fouled, made two foul shots for the War Hawks to give Henry County a 45-36 lead. This electrified the large contingent from McDonough. The Panthers turned the ball over again, and the War Hawks capitalized with another basket. Henry County had increased their lead to 48-36. ASH continued to foul to stop the clock, but Henry County kept making free throws. With the War Hawks up 50-38 with 11.9 seconds to go, timeout was called. The realization that the season was about to end was setting in on the ASH team and the large contingent of fans from Americus. The Panthers continued to foul up to the las second, but it was academic as Henry County ended the Panthers remarkable 24-8 season with a 51-38 win. One glaring statistic in this game was the disparity in the amount of foul shots attempted. For the game, Americus-Sumter only got to the foul line four times. They went 3-for-4 from the foul line. In contrast, Henry County went to the foul line 27 times, making 19 of their foul shots. Some of them came near the end of the game as the Panthers were fouling to stop the clock.

ASH Freshman Nyja Carson saves the ball from going out of bounds.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

For four seniors, Jykiera Long, her sister Tykiera, Shidajah Johnson and Yolanna Tyson, it was their final game wearing an ASH uniform. “We tried to make it. Last year, we got put out in the first round and we tried to make it farther,” Shidajah Johnson said. “For us to have seven people, that’s really a big thing. In 2016, we made it to state and we tried to make it again. We couldn’t make it last year, but we tried this year. Even though we got put out, we still did pretty good.”  Johnson was referring to the 2016 Americus-Sumter team that won the state championship. Johnson went on to say that she wishes good luck to the remaining teams left: Henry County, Carver and Spalding. The War Hawks will play Spalding for the AAAA state Championship as Spalding defeated Carver (Columbus) in the other state semifinal. After enduring a four-game losing streak in January, this group of four seniors led the Panthers to win 10 of their next 12 games, making it all the way to the final four. These seniors will be missed greatly, but there are underclassmen, such as Deasia Ford, Nyja Carson, Brianna Pope and others, who will be back next year to take the mantle and lead this team to more success in the future.