Northwest Whitfield High School’s girls basketball team returns to the Class 4A state tournament for a second straight year.
The only difference this year is the boys team won’t be joining them.
As the No. 1 seed from Sub-region 7B-4A after sharing the league title with Dalton, Northwest’s boys earned a first-round bye and only needed one win in the Region 7-4A tournament to extend their season to the state postseason. However, they lost 63-59 to tournament host Cass, the fourth seed from Sub-region 7A. The girls made the most of their top seed with a 69-41 win against Ridgeland and play today at 4 p.m. against Gilmer in the semifinals.
In the boys game, Northwest (15-11) had two chances to tie or take the lead in the final minute. Trailing 61-55 with about two minutes to go, Northwest’s Tanner Bailey made two free throws and Caleb Branson forced a steal and assisted Caleb Storey for a layup. After Cass (11-16) turned the ball over again with a lane violation, the Bruins had a completed comeback in their sights.
A pass to Storey was deflected and stolen by Cass, but Keylon Woodard missed both free throws. With another chance, Northwest turned it over again and Cass converted a game-clinching layup with 11 seconds remaining. Storey tried drawing a foul on a 3-pointer on the next possession. He didn’t get the call and missed the shot.
“We were supposed to run a post slip for Caleb Storey in the lane,” Bruins coach Ryan Richards said of the initial play design.
“I don’t know how open it was but the kid made a great play.”
Northwest had a 10-day stretch without playing games due to last week’s winter storm that delayed the tournament. Cass played Saturday and beat Southeast Whitfield to play Northwest, last year’s region champions.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Richards said. “You’ve got no practice and then a 10-day layoff between games. ... We can make all the excuses we want. ... You still have to make plays and score.”
Cass outplayed Northwest in the first quarter and Jordan Morning’s 3-pointer at the buzzer put the Colonels ahead 21-10.
“I think playing a game helped to our advantage,” Cass coach Greg Scott said. “I also think we were embarrassed from when they beat us big in December. It was a two-point game after the first quarter and got away from us. We’re so much better now than we were back then.”
Northwest dominated the second period, using a high post play to draw Cass’ baseline defenders up in its 2-3 zone and find a baseline cutter. That play worked three times and started bringing the Bruins back, and Northwest pulled to within two, 27-25, with Storey’s first 3-pointer of the game with 3:08 left. He made two more to put Northwest ahead 33-30. Cass led 34-33 at halftime.
“Our game plan was to take away Storey,” Scott said. “He’s a good shooter. When they went to the high post play and had the guy dive down the baseline, we were staying with their shooters. We told our guys to take that away. I’d rather gamble on a 29-footer than a 2-footer.”
Cass started the third quarter like the first and led 49-40 with Woodard’s layup. The Colonels held that difference, 53-44, into the last quarter.
“It’s disappointing,” Richards said. “We’ve had a good run as of late.”
Northwest turned the ball over 20 times and made 5-of-21 3-pointers. Storey made four of them, finishing with 16 points, and Bailey added 10 points.
Morning led all players with 17 points and Jordan Cothran added 13 points for Cass.
In the girls game, Northwest (22-3) didn’t look at all like a team that hadn’t played in 10 days. The Lady Bruins scored the first eight points and never looked back.
“I don’t know if ‘worries’ is the word,” Northwest coach Greg Brown said of the time between games. “I was interested to see how we’d play.”
Halle Ford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first quarter up 23-8. Bria Clemmons gave Northwest its biggest lead, 40-15, with a 3-pointer with 3:36 remaining before halftime.
The next seven minutes made things interesting.
Ridgeland, 7B’s fifth seed, went on a 20-6 run and trailed 46-35 with 4:51 left in the third quarter after Destiny Irvin’s 3-pointer. Whitley Brooker banked in a 3-pointer a minute later and launched an 8-2 quarter-ending run for the Lady Bruins, who never again led by fewer than 17 points.
“We’re a deep team,” Brooker said. “We all know our role.”
Northwest, which usually uses at least 10 players each game, showed how deep it is this season. Four players reached double digits and three are bench players. Clemmons led the team with 13 points, Brooker added 11 and Karli Williams also scored 11. Maret, a sophomore starter, scored 12 points.
“We knew we’d play a bunch of people and they wouldn’t,” Brown said. “We wanted to speed the game up.”
Macy Weeks added eight but helped shut down Ridgeland post player Tiffany Wimpy, who finished with five points. Northwest forced 25 turnovers.
Northwest, which went undefeated in sub-region play, will try to clinch a home state tournament game in the first round today. The Lady Bruins also are playing for a return trip to the region championship after losing in last year’s title game. The Lady Bruins will take on Gilmer in the semifinal game at 4 p.m.