“It was huge for us,” Sylacauga head coach Derrick Crawford said. “We came out this morning a little sluggish for what ever reason. They established an inside presence in that first quarter and got a commanding lead right there. Like I told my kids, we took their best shot in the first quarter. We just needed to keep our composure, keep playing and every thing else was going to take care of itself. We went into halftime and we had some things that we haven’t shown in the first half and felt like it was going to hurt them in the second half. They did a good job in that 2-3 zone and matching up with shooters. Dede Mitchell really came on in the second half. Shakayla did an excellent job of controlling the boards, getting out distributing the ball in run outs and finishing on run outs. This was a huge win for us. We knew it was going to be a fight. It was going to be battle coming in here with two top 10 teams and that is what you expect coming in here.”
Nerves seemed to get to Sylacauga in the first quarter. Off the opening tip, Maliyah Patton scored on a layup in the opposing team’s basket to start the game.
The Aggies also had a hard time containing Central Tuscaloosa’s Toborsha Holley and Shawntayla Harris. The inside-out duo scored eight points apiece in the opening period. Shakayla Thomas scored eight points in the quarter.
Thomas and the Lady Aggies fought their way back into the game in the second quarter.
Thomas scored 10 points in the second quarter, which included four points in the final two minutes of the first half.
Tierra Dark hit a layup to cut the lead down to 32-26. A pair of free throws by Thomas cut the lead down to 31-28 with 1:38 left in the half. Thomas was also able to get her teammates involved. After collecting a defensive rebound, Thomas sprinted down the court and found Dede Mitchell cutting to the basket for a layup to cut the Central Tuscaloosa lead to 33-30. Harris hit a layup with: 14 second left in the half to increase Central’s lead to 35-30. Thomas however didn’t get fazed as she calmly nailed a jumper with .2 seconds left to cut the lead down to 35-32 going into halftime.
Sylacauga carried the momentum into the second half. Thomas opened the second half on a 5-0 run to take 37-35 lead. Her three-point play gave Sylacauga their first lead since the first quarter.
“That pep talk we had at halftime got me hyped,” Thomas said. “I came out with my mind set on winning.”
Dark increased the Lady Aggies lead to 39-36. The Lady Falcons regained the lead on a Lawanda Maddix layup to make it 40-39.
Mitchell made her presence felt in the third quarter. The senior scored eight of her 12 points during a 10-4 run to end the quarter. Most of Mitchell’s points in the third quarter came in transition. Her layup off Dark’s steal and assist gave Sylacauga 43-40 lead.
Thomas turned defense into offense to cap off the run. The reigning Class 5A Player of the Year blocked a Central player shot, then she sprinted down the court and Dark found her for an uncontested layup to give the Lady Aggies a 49-44 lead.
In the final period the Lady Aggies defensive intensity went to turned up to another level. Defensively, the Lady Aggies pride themselves in holding their opponents under double –digits in a quarter and they were able in doing that in the fourth as they only allowed nine points.
The Lady Aggies opened the quarter by going 5-6 from the free throw line. Kiaria Pope nailed a pair of free throws to give Sylacauga 54-46 lead.
Thomas gave Sylacauga a 57-48 advantage off a Mitchell steal and outlet pass which led to a layup.
“Defense, we can’t stress that enough,” Thomas said. “Offense didn’t win this game, defense won this game. It was all about our team and everyone contributed and did their part.”
Thomas led the way with 34 points and 20 rebounds.
The Lady Aggies hit 5-8 free throws to close the game to earn their second straight trip to the Class 5A Central Regional finals.
The Lady Aggies will take on Valley on Thursday at 3 p.m.
“We are excited,” Crawford said. “That was one of our goals and we feel like we match up with everybody that we play. We’ve had the opportunity to see everybody that could possible play except for Brewer. Defensively, we feel like we match up. We are going to take it one game at a time.”