Southland Lady Raiders suffer heartbreaking loss to Tiftarea in state semifinals

Published 8:07 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023

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CARROLLTON, GA – After three quarters of play, the Southland Academy Lady Raiders (SAR) had a 33-27 lead over their GIAA Region 3-AAA foes Tiftarea Academy (TA) and were eight minutes away from appearing in their second state championship game in the past three years. However, due to cold shooting by SAR in the fourth quarter as a result of a ramped up TA defense and hot shooting by the Lady Panthers, SAR was held to four points in the fourth quarter. That would eventually lead to a heartbreaking 41-37 loss to TA in the GIAA Class AAA girls’ basketball state semifinals at the University of West Georgia on Wednesday, March 1.

The loss concludes the Lady Raiders’ season at 23-5, while the Lady Panthers (19-5) will advance to the state finals and will play Deerfield-Windsor (26-1) for the GIAA Class AAA state championship at Mercer University in Macon on Friday, March 3.

This was the fourth meeting between the two teams this year, with each team winning two games.

For seniors Riley Mitchell, J.C. Bailey, Anslee Rooks, Lauren Duke and Morgan Weaver, it was the final basketball game of their high school careers.

“It was just two teams that know each other really well,” SAR Head Coach Eric Israel said. “It was a game of runs and that’s basketball. It just seemed like about midway through the fourth quarter, they just started hitting shots and we couldn’t get ours to fall. It was a good game. I’m super proud of the girls, especially these seniors. It’s been a joy coaching them. I’m just thankful to have gotten to coach this team,” Israel continued.

Southland Academy senior forward Riley Mitchell scored 12 points in the Lady Raiders’ loss to Tiftarea Academy in state semifinals.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Mitchell led the Lady Raiders with 12 points and senior shooting guard Bailey had 10. Weaver scored nine points, junior forward Mary Beth Easterlin had three points, Rooks chipped in two points and Duke made one free throw in the losing cause.

Both teams got off to a slow start, but the Lady Panthers jumped out to a 5-0 lead before Weaver drained a three-pointer to bring SAR within two at 5-3. However, TA went on another run and outscored the Lady Raiders 8-4 to take a 13-7 lead by the end of the first quarter.

The Lady Raiders went on a 4-2 run early in the second quarter and capped it off with two free throws from Bailey, but Elli Bryan drained the Lady Panthers’ third three-pointer of the game to that point, to the dismay of a frustrated Israel, who wanted his team to guard the TA sharp shooter on the perimeter. Israel called a timeout and strongly implored his club to guard Bryan on the perimeter, as the Raiders were trailing TA 18-11.

Southland Academy senior shooting guard J.C. Bailey scored 10 points in the Lady Raiders’ loss to Tiftarea Academy in the state semifinals.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Out of the timeout, SAR went on a 5-1 run that was capped off by a three-pointer from Weaver and the Lady Raiders only trailed 19-16. Over the final two and a half minutes of the first half, the Lady Raiders continued to keep within striking distance and they cut the TA lead to 21-19 on two made foul shots from Bailey. However, the Lady Panthers got in the final salvo of the first half when Jolee Paulk drained a three-pointer from the right baseline to give TA a 24-19 halftime lead.

Mitchell led the Lady Raiders in first half scoring with seven points.

The Lady Raiders got off to a good start in the second half, as J.C. Bailey knocked down a three-pointer in the early going. Mitchell then dished out an assist to Mary Beth Easterlin, who scored on the inside, tying the game at 24-24. Shortly thereafter, Lauren Duke gave the Lady Raiders their first lead of the game on a free throw. This was the beginning of a 5-2 run by SAR that culminated in another three-pointer from Bailey and it prompted TA to call a timeout with the Lady Raiders leading 30-26.

Over the final two minutes of the third quarter, SAR only allowed one point from the Lady Panthers and completed a 3-0 run when Mitchell drove to the basket and scored as the horn sounded to end the third quarter. The Lady Raiders were now only eight minutes away from reaching the state finals, as they led 33-27.

With two TA players having four fouls and another with three, the Lady Raiders tried to draw fouls and score points by utilizing the dribble drive. However, in spite of the foul trouble, the Lady Panthers weren’t going away and they were able to cut the SAR lead to 36-30 on a three-pointer by Isabel Fernandez. Shortly thereafter, Olivia Mullis brought TA within five, prompting Israel to call a timeout with 4:27 left in the game and the Lady Raiders holding a 37-32 lead.

Southland Academy senior point guard Morgan Weaver scored nine points in the Lady Raiders’ loss to Tiftarea Academy.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Out of the timeout, SAR waited too long to get a shot off and turned the ball over on a shot clock violation. The Lady Panthers responded with a basket from Ali Strenth, which would touch off a 7-0 run by TA. The run was capped off by Mullis on a layup and within a matter of a couple of minutes, the Lady Raiders found themselves trailing 39-37 with a little over two minutes left. During this period of the game, TA had found its momentum and SAR was struggling to score. With 1:14 to go, Israel called a timeout to settle his team down, as the Lady Raiders only trailed 39-37.

However, out of the timeout, SAR struggled offensively due to the intense defensive pressure from the Lady Panthers. As a result, Mitchell shot an air ball as the shot clock ran down to zero, resulting in another turnover.

With 22 seconds left, the Lady Raiders still had a chance to tie the game, but TA forced another turnover and Elli Bryan was fouled with 8.3 seconds left. Bryan made both free throws to salt away the 41-37 victory for the Lady Panthers and ended the Lady Raiders’ remarkable season at 23-5.