by Rob Grubbs
Whitewater Lady Wildcats coach Rashad Muhyee assembled one the strongest fields for a holiday basketball tournament in the state on Saturday. Including his team and the Fayette County Lady Tigers, five of the best teams from the state (Wesleyan, St. Francis, Eagles Landing, Harrison and Collins Hill) tipped off. Add to that two top out of state teams in Memphis Central and Hoover from Alabama, and you have a recipe for exciting ladies basketball played at the highest level with the first Queens of the Hardwood Classic.
The first game featured Fayette County, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last year in Class AAAAA. They have gotten off to a strong start at 8-1 and got the opportunity to face one of the most storied ladies’ programs in the state, the Wesleyan Wolves. Under the leadership of coach Jan Azar, Wesleyan has won 12 state championships in the past 16 years. The current edition is led by the talented senior duo of guard Amaya Register, who is committed to Old Dominion, and Furman commit forward Sutton West with an otherwise young supporting cast. While the Tigers played Wesleyan even through the first quarter, emerging star sophomore AC Carter dominated on the offensive and defensive sides of the court and led the Wolves to an impressive 83-58 win.
The opening tip of the game gave a glimpse at what was to transpire as West easily tipped the ball out to Carter who had a layup for the opening score. West scored on their next possession to go up 4-0 less than one minute in, and a suddenly the feeling of a blowout wafted overhead, but Tiger senior Rikkelle Miller knocked down a 3-pointer to answer, which seemed to settle her team down. Miller hit another three at the end of the first quarter to tie things up at 20-20. An otherwise impressive first quarter by the Tigers did have one negative as sharpshooting Miller picked up two quick fouls, the second one only three minutes into the game. It would significantly affect the way Fayette County coach John Strickland rotated her in and out to protect her.
The third quarter started like the first. Carter hit a 3-pointer on the first play. It was the start of a surgically precise third quarter where the Wolves operated at will. They hit six 3-pointers in that quarter alone, Carter and Register with two each, and Nicole Azar and Hill also getting one.
Maegan Barkley was a bright spot in the second half for theTigers. She made an athletic steal at mid-court and a drive for the basket plus the foul to keep them within striking distance at 58-45.
In the end, Wesleyan’s press wore down the Tigers, but the game was a great learning opportunity and will help them down the road when it’s tournament time. Miller led the Tigers in scoring with 16, while Barkley, who was named player of the game for Fayette County, had 15 and Trinity Brown added 10 points and 6 assists.
In the second game, Whitewater (4-3) took on the Lithia Springs (7-2) from Region 6AAAAA. The Lions jumped out to a 12-11 lead, with Wildcat Cambria Caliendo hitting a 3-pointer to keep the game close. With Whitewater up by two going into the fourth quarter, point guard Courtney Smith put the game away by scoring 9 of her game high 17 in the fourth quarter for the 42-34 Wildcat win. With the game on the line, she went 7 for 8 from the free throw line. Jada Claude, who carried Whitewater in the first half, finished with 10.
In other action, St. Francis, the number-three ranked team from Class-A-Private, lost a nail-biter game against the Hoover Buccaneers, the number-four ranked 7A team from Alabama, 53-51. The other out of state team, the Memphis Central Warriors, scored a basket in the final seconds off a steal of an inbounds pass for a 54-52 thriller win against Eagles Landing.
The nightcap featured the Harrison Hoyas, who lost the state championship last season to Mays by one point, and are currently ranked number two in Class AAAAAA against Collins Hill, who is ranked number two in Class AAAAAAA. Harrison has a small quick lineup. They start four guards and a forward, while Collins Hill is exactly the opposite, and they start four forwards and one guard. The game was a low-scoring affair as the Hoyas dictated the pace, but the Eagles held on for the 42-39 win.
For Coach Muhyee, it was an excellent day. His Wildcat team got a win and gained confidence going into the Peach State Holiday Christmas Tournament in Atlanta this week, and some of the best lady basketball players from the southeast showcased their skills at Whitewater High School. Hopefully this will become an annual event that can be hosted and enjoyed every season by basketball-loving fans.