County matchups carry a little extra weight in this season’s new region configurations, and Friday night it was Whitewater grasping much-needed momentum with a sweep of Starr’s Mill.
The Whitewater girls shook off a slow start with defensive intensity, pulling away for a commanding 60-34 win over the Lady Panthers.
“I don’t know what it is about playing Starr’s Mill, of course they’re going to be well-coached, but we always start off really slow. We couldn’t make a layup in the first quarter,” said Whitewater coach Rashad Muhyee, whose sophomore-heavy team showed uncanny maturity for a young squad. “To the girls’ credit, and it’s been like this all year, they fight the entire game. They keep pushing. Playing freshmen last year helped. They know the game is never over.”
Neither team could find much offense in the first quarter. Courtney Smith notched the opening points for Whitewater on a putback, but that would be it until midway through the frame. Spencer Dawson’s got the Panthers on the board with a 3-pointer, and Alyssa Angelo would chip in for Starr’s Mill’s last lead at 6-4.
Whitewater held an 8-6 lead after one quarter and did not look back. Their three-quarter court press on defense was a problem for the Panthers all night.
“We moved to that this year. I just felt like we have some athletes on the court, and I’m not going to sit back and just let them play in a zone,” said Muhyee. “It’s been helping us. We get a lot of fast break points. We can go on a quick run, and, before you know it, it’s a six- or eight-point run, and they’re all layups because we’re pushing the ball.”
Starr’s Mill kept close early in the second as Alice Anne Hudson swiped a pass and dished to Ashtyn Lally to stay within two points, but soon the Wildcats started to pull away. Jada Claude went to work in the post, and Janiya Jones heated up on the wing as they built up a 23-13 halftime lead.
Whitewater used good ball movement to kick off the second half as Claude launched a long pass to Morgan Johnson, who found an open Smith for two. After Hudson hit another three, Maya Bryant pushed back for the Cats with two in the paint.
Each time the Panthers tried to claw back, the Wildcats kept them at arm’s length. After Kelly Kozusko worked for two in the paint, Johnson responded with a steal and layup, and Claude followed with a swipe and pull-up jumper as the Cats held a 39-20 lead after three.
Starr’s Mill did not give up, Angelo sinking a three midway through the fourth, but the gap just would not narrow. Both sides brought in fresh faces in the waning moments, Erin Ledbetter hitting a 3-pointer for the Cats for the final points in a 60-34 victory.
Courtney Smith led the way for the Cats with 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 steals. Jada Claude posted a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Janiya Jones added 14 points and 7 rebounds.
The Lady Wildcats could not keep their streak going, falling 63-44 to Griffin Saturday afternoon. They are now 6-3. Starr’s Mill rebounded with a 58-44 win over Morrow and are 3-4.
On the boys side, the region is already shaping up to be a dogfight following Whitewater’s 55-41 win over Starr’s Mill. Four out of seven teams in the region will make the state playoffs, and the standings are muddled in the middle after McIntosh beat Whitewater last week, Starr’s Mill beat McIntosh days later, and now the Wildcats topped the Panthers. Along with a dominant Fayette County team, the playoff race will have a distinctly local feel.
The first half was as closely played a game as you could plan out, neither team scraping out more than a four-point lead. Stephen Peterson sparked the Panthers at the outset with a spinning bucket and a feed to a leaping Drew Hudson for two more. Josh Graham countered for the Cats with a leaner, a steal and layup, and a baseline basket to give his team a 14-13 lead after one.
Copeland Jackson started the second with a 3-pointer, but the Panthers surged back to tie the game, then go in front, first on a Zach Pina dish to Nate Allison, then Peterson driving and kicking out to Pina for a trey. Starr’s Mill maintained a slim lead at the half, Graham sinking a fadeaway to make it 26-25 at the break.
Whitewater came out like a team possessed in the second half, keyed in particular by a big effort from Joshua Lanier, whose ability to get to the hoop was hard to stop. Lanier’s floater pushed the Cats in front early in the third, and they did not look back. He added an and-one, and Jackson buried a three as the lead hit six points. Another and-one from Lanier and a Graham bucket slicing through the lane staked Whitewater to a 42-35 lead after three.
The fourth quarter was more of the same from the Cats as they salted away the game. Starr’s Mill suffered a blow when Nate Allison fouled out with seven minutes to play in a game heavily policed by the officials. Lanier made it a double-digit lead on a baseline pair, and the Cats finished it off from there in a 55-41 win.
The boys followed up their win against the Panthers with a 51-42 road win at Griffin. They are now 4-5. Starr’s Mill recovered with a 71-64 win over Morrow and are 4-2.
The teams will meet again on Starr’s Mill’s court January 21.
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