At the region tournament in Augusta on Wednesday, Feb. 14, the Richmond Hill High School girls basketball team defeated the highly touted Butler team to win a trip to the state playoffs.
Given their regular season record against the top two teams in their own sub-region, and given the heralded tradition of teams from the Augusta area, the thought that third place Richmond Hill, from the lowly south sub-region, could walk in to an Augusta area gymnasium and wrestle away one of only four top spots from the combined region as a whole seemed somewhat unlikely. However that is just what the Lady Wildcats did this past week.
"The kids have done this. It hasn’t been a coaching issue," said coach Wade Wright. "The seniors have led and the underclassmen have bought in to it. It’s made a difference. This is a great group of kids."
Fatigue was apparent on Friday and Saturday as they finished the region with losses to Hepzibah and Cross Creek. This did not deter the girls from the excitement of the fact that their win against Butler still secured them a spot in the upcoming state playoffs - the first time in three seasons this has occurred.
"I attribute the losses to being extremely tired and missing a couple players due to illness," said Wright. "We travelled over 1,000 miles in four days. We missed a lot of shots, but they never quit."
Thomson was the Lady Cats first victim in the first round on Monday night 49-29 in a game that one interested fan, Richmond Hill High School Athletic Director Jimmy Hires, characterized as "the best they can play". On Wednesday, they would be tasked with not only duplicating that effort, but it would come against the second seed from the north region Butler, which they beat 44-43 for a trip to the state tournament.
When Kala Hires was helping take apart Thomson with her game high 19 points on Monday you can bet there was a Butler coach or two in the stands.
Butler would attack the smaller Richmond Hill team with a full court pressing - zone defense - that went to the ball regardless of how far out the Wildcats were from the basket. A constant shout out from Wright on the Wildcat bench was to "spread out".
Richmond Hill did just that.
Even center Jennifer Pellam would take up a position on offense that was beyond the three point line, while her team mate guards moved the ball around the perimeter waiting for an opening. As the Lady Bulldogs stretched out to cover the perimeter and prevent the guards from getting any open looks at the basket, those same guards were finding open lanes and cutters going to the basket.
Such was the play that ended the scoring and put them in the state tournament.
After exchanging turnovers in the last critical 30 seconds of the fourth period and the game tied at 41, Richmond Hill was on defense and forced to foul to prevent an easy score. The Lady Bulldog at the line made both free throws to give them a two-point lead with only 12 seconds left. Hires brought the ball up court on the inbound and, after a quick couple of passes, got the ball back and found Pellam sliding in to the right side of the basket.
The Richmond Hill sophomore took the pass and scored the close-in shot as a Butler defender committed the hard foul. The shot went in with three seconds remaining and Pellam at the line for the winning free throw. Wright would say afterward that she was one of a couple he would choose to be at the line at the end of the game - Pellam didn’t disappoint. Credit the Wildcat defense for giving her the opportunity.
Coach Wright was concerned about the match ups.
The much taller Lady Bulldogs would require their smaller guards to be assigned to them. They didn’t back down, the diminutive trio of Sarah Reid, Colleen Keller, and Tyler Carlson, spent most of the night looking up at their defensive assignees, and held their own. Jade Crosby and Hires joined in harassing the Butler ball handlers from outside and in, contesting every pass and every shot they attempted.
Underneath, Pellam flexing her muscle and was getting her share of the defensive rebounds. Another key to the girls success against Butler, and during the final stretch of the season, has been their team composure.
Richmond Hill played against the Butler pressure all night and, even with the occasional turnover and a six point deficit at halftime, they never panicked.
Hires scored two three-pointers (13 points), Keller (5 points) added another and Pellam (17 points) tied the score with a put back in the third.
The game would go back and forth the rest of the way until the last second game winner. It will take another dose of that composure for them to take the next step in their unlikely journey.
Friday’s game, against the highly regarded Hepzibah team, proved to be a tough battle ending with a 66-13 loss. This put them into a consolation game, versus Cross Creek, with the winner to take the third place seed. Despite a strong showing, and a game high 20 points for Kala Hires, the Cats lost in a close 47-40 game.
The Lady Cats, entering as the fourth seed, will now play their first round state playoff game against a tough Kendrick team, who are ranked third in the entire state, on Friday night in Columbus.
"Making state is an unbelievable accomplishment," said Wright. "Earlier this season, no one even thought we could make it this far. The girls have shown an amazing work ethic, and they deserve this."
Wright recognizes that Friday’s game will be a tough match, but that he is stressing to the girls that there is a great deal of "satisfaction with being there (state). And, hey, the girls are telling me ‘well, since we’re there, we might as well win it’, which is a great attitude to take. People are saying that we can’t beat Kendrick. Well, people said that we couldn’t beat Butler, and we did. We don’t care what people are saying, we’re just going to do the best we can."