The Fayette County Lady Tigers closed the book on a magical season falling 61-44 to the Villa Rica Lady Wildcats on the road Tuesday night, but the team didn’t leave without emptying their hearts into an historic final chapter.
Fans lined the exterior of the Villa Rica gym in anticipation of the Class AAAAA Elite Eight matchup. Parents arrived hours early and were decked out in their respective team colors, while kids tagged along handling custom-made signs of favorite players.
Everyone wanted a glimpse of the future to answer their burning questions. Would Villa Rica get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1969? Would Fayette head coach John Strickland find a way to do it again?
From the opening tip, the fans got their answer. Neither team disappointed as a back-and-forth game thrilled throughout the first quarter.
Villa Rica sophomore Kyndal Coleman drained the first shot to get the game rolling. Fayette senior guard Rikkelle Miller answered back with a deep corner 3-pointer to give the Tigers an early lead. A few possessions later, Miller connected again from long distance as Fayette opened a 7-5 advantage.
That slim two-point lead would be the last time Fayette led in the game. Villa Rica started to pound the ball to talented junior forward Deasia Merrill. She got going with a deep 3-pointer to give the Wildcats the lead. She also had five points to spark a 14-5 run to give Villa Rica a 19-12 lead after the first quarter.
Merrill finished the game with 22 points and created havoc throughout the game. Displaying superb vision, she carved the Tigers’ zone defense with pinpoint passing. She hit open teammates on cuts and used her length to shoot from the perimeter.
“We wanted to get after her and wear her down a little bit,” Strickland said. “I knew she could pass like Magic (Johnson), so we had to stop her. Once she got into the flow, it was over.”
Her energy spread through the entire Wildcat team. Every time Fayette tried to make a run, Villa Rica had an answer. A prime example happened in the second quarter after Fayette made their comeback.
Fayette relied on the defensive efforts of seniors Trinity Brown and Maegan Barkley to get back within one point. Brown finished with 10 points and Barkley with 8 points. Just as they got going, so did the Wildcats’ high-octane offense. Villa Rica found senior Jalia Orozco and Merrill for back-to-back 3-pointers to keep Fayette at bay. Brown responded with a bucket of her own, and Miller cashed in with another 3-pointer.
Villa Rica kept scoring to carry a 31-30 lead into halftime. After the break, the game started to sway in Villa Rica’s favor. They took control defensively and turned Fayette cold in the third quarter. The Tigers scored seven points and were frustrated offensively. There wasn’t a lot of movement or sharing of the basketball. Every player didn’t touch the ball before it was shot.
As a result, Fayette forced a lot of unnecessary shot attempts and that took them out of a rhythm. They fell behind 47-40 in the third quarter and things didn’t get better as the game progressed.
A quick rally from Miller put them within three points in the fourth quarter. She would finish with 13 points to lead the Tigers, but with six minutes remaining it wasn’t enough. The Wildcats turned on the afterburners and went on a 19-5 run to put the game out of reach.
“We wanted to go to the basket, but they were so big inside,” Strickland said. “It was hard for us tonight as Merrill is so long. She was blocking shots every time we went inside. It was hard for us to attack the middle.”
As the final seconds ticked away, Villa Rica celebrated with their fans on the court as Fayette sauntered to the locker room. While disappointed, Strickland couldn’t have been happier for his team.
“We fought and stayed in the game,” Strickland said. “I knew we were going into a big atmosphere as it is amazing over here with how much support they have and how they love girls basketball.”
As for his senior group headlined by Miller, Brown, and Barkley, he was glad to see them come together and reach the Elite Eight. He felt their impact on the program was valuable to their underclassmen teammates.
“To come back this season, get to the Elite Eight,, and to have a shot to move on was awesome for them,” Strickland said. “I think they left their mark on the program.”
The cupboard is not bare for Fayette next season. They will return key contributors like Sidney Sims, Naomi Franco, and Ruby Truscott. Fellow guards like Ghylissa Knowles and Kayla Montgomery will be inserted at the guard spots. Each have the talent to compete in Region 5-AAAAA play and Strickland knows they will be ready to roll next fall.
“We are young, and we are going to have to go back to work,” Strickland said. “We always find a way and we have to see where we are at. We lost some really good seniors and scorers. It may be a different look next year.”
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