After coming up short in the first round of the state tournament the past two seasons, the LaGrange Lady Grangers broke through Tuesday night against Stephens County.
Behind a 26-point performance from senior Brittany Tatum, the Lady Grangers (22-7) pulled away late for a 67-57 victory in the opening round of the Class AAAA state tournament.
It was LaGrange’s first state win since 2010 when it advanced to the state semifinals.
Tatum is one of a handful of seniors who was a part of that team as a freshman, and she said it felt great to return to the winner’s circle at state.
“It’s really special. The past two years, we’ve been in a funk in the first round,” Tatum said. “To come out and get a win was really big for us.”
It wasn’t easy.
Stephens County, which finished third in the Region 8-AAAA tournament to punch its ticket to state, was within five points with 1:42 remaining.
The Lady Grangers finished the game on a 7-2 run, though, to finally salt it away.
“We couldn’t get in panic mode,” Tatum said. “We stayed comfortable and played our game.”
Tatum scored 10 of her 26 points in the fourth period, and she made 7-of-10 attempts from the free-throw line.
Post player KaBrenna Smith added 14 points and was a force in the paint, particularly on the defensive end where she swatted away a bunch of shots.
Senior guard Steara Mitchell added 12 points.
As satisfying as it was to get the breakthrough win at state, LaGrange head coach Jan Jones said the team will have to play a lot better to keep its season alive.
“I asked them when we got down there (to the locker room), how many of y’all feel good about this win? Nobody did,” Jones said. “Which is a good thing, because we know we didn’t play our best. We had some costly turnovers, and had some foul trouble come in there. So, we just have to play smarter. We have to knock down layups and free throws.”
Still, any win is much appreciated this time of year.
“Everybody’s going to be good,” Jones said. “Every game’s going to be difficult. Anything can happen on a given night.”
The Lady Grangers charged to a 19-13 lead after the opening period, and they led by as many as nine points in the second quarter before Stephens County scored the last four points of the half to make it a 32-27 game at the break.
After the Lady Indians got within three at the start of the third period, the Lady Grangers reclaimed command and led by as many as 13 points a couple of times.
With 1:35 left in the third quarter, Andrea Heflin’s 3-pointer put LaGrange up 48-35, and the lead was 48-38 heading into the final period.
The Lady Indians were still down by 10 with a little more than four minutes remaining, but they fought back to get within five with three minutes left on the clock.
The deficit was still five in the final two minutes, and Stephens County had the ball back with a chance to get even closer, but it couldn’t convert.
With 52 seconds left, Tatum made a pair of free throws to push the lead to seven.
Stephens County then turned the ball over, and Mitchell was fouled, and she made two free throws with 45 seconds left to make it a 64-55 game, and LaGrange had the game in hand.