Richmond Hill Lady Wildcats coach Wade Wright said his team has three mottos.
Stay in it to win it.
Play all 32 minutes.
"That’s what we’ve been preaching and it’s been working for us," Wright said, after the Lady Wildcats (14-11) knocked off Butler 44-43 on Wednesday in the Region 3AAA tournament in Augusta.
The victory advanced the Lady Wildcats to the Region 3AAA semifinals while assuring them of their first state playoff berth in three seasons.
But the win didn’t come easy and wasn’t assured until sophomore center Jenny Pellam's three-point play on a putback and free throw with seconds left.
Pellam finished with a game-high 17 points. Senior guard Kala Hires added 13 while Tyler Carlson and Coleen Kelly chipped in nine and five points, respectively, in what Wright called a total team effort.
"The biggest thing was they’d go up by three or four points and we’d come back and tie them," he said. "Then they’d get a little momentum and we’d stop it. Somebody would hit a big basket or we’d get a turnover."
Still, the Lady Wildcats, who trailed by six points at halftime, didn’t lead until Pellam's game-winning shot inside the paint.
"At no point did we quit," Wright said. "It was a weird game. We knew we could control them, we were just trying to find ways to get untracked to score some baskets."
Wright, who took over a 4-4 team at midseason, credited his players for going 10-7 down the stretch and improving as the season progressed.
"It’s been a team effort," he said. "The whole tournament has been a team effort with different contributors. Everybody is playing their role and taking care of the basketball."
Now, the Lady Wildcats have to face 2006 state-runner up Hephzibah, a team that’s twice beaten Richmond Hill during the regular season. The Lady Rebels won the Class AAA title in 2005 and have long been a state powerhouse under coach Wendell Lofton.
Wright said Hephzibah will provide his team a measuring stick.
"They’re an unbelievable team," Wright said. "It wouldn’t surprise me if they won the state championship. But they’re a great measuring tool for us. We’re having lots of success, but we have just enough underclassmen on our team that we need to play a team like Hephzibah to see where we need to get."
But the Lady Wildcats already have come far since the first half of the season, he added.
"It’s exciting to make the state playoffs because they’ve come so far," he said. "I’m proud of what the kids have accomplished."
And he again credited his players for getting back to the state tournament.
"The kids have done this. It hasn’t been a coaching issue," he said. "The seniors have led and the underclassmen have bought in to it. It’s made a difference. This is a great group of kids."
Richmond Hill and Hephzibah square off at 4 p.m. Friday in the region semifinals at Richmond Academy.
The team is leaving Richmond Hill at 9:30 a.m., Wright said.