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Decision time for Lady Tigers

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It was, in so many ways, a painful and heart-wrenching way to end what was a special season for the Troup Lady Tigers.

Despite a close loss to Sandy Creek in the Region 5-AAAA championship game, Troup headed into the state tournament last year feeling good about its prospects.

It was a team that was playing its best basketball of the season at the right time, and the players and coaches were rightly feeling optimistic as the state tournament approached.

Shortly before Troup was set to play its state opener against Oconee County, tragedy struck.

Quydarius Weldon, the brother of Troup team member Samarria Weldon, was shot a few days before that Oconee County game, and he later died from the injuries.

Samarria Weldon didn’t play that night but was in attendance, and Troup struggled from the get-go on the way to a 41-28 loss.

“It broke us,” said Troup head coach Carla Thornton. “And then she still came to the game that day. It was too much. A lot of people don’t know what we went through.”

Thornton said she “tried real hard to be strong” for the team, “but that’s a lot of weight to carry.”

It was such a painful and tumultuous time for the players and coaches, but it also helped an already close-knit group form an even tighter bond.

From that low-point, a stronger team emerged, one that was committed to making the 2019-2020 season one to remember.

“After we lost the first round, we said this is not what we want to do next year,” said guard Monyia Murphy, a freshman on last year’s team. “We want to go all the way and win a ring.”

Now, a little more than a year removed from that loss to Oconee County, Troup is one victory away from winning a state championship.

Troup (27-1), which has won four state-tournament games to reach this point, will play Americus-Sumter (28-2) at 11 a.m. in the Macon Coliseum for the Class AAAA state title.

It’s a Troup team filled with talented and committed players who are willing to do whatever it takes to bring home the championship.

One of those players is Weldon, who is such an important contributor and has had a stellar sophomore season.

“We’ve had to work hard,” Weldon said following a 56-47 semifinal victory over Carver. “We just wanted it.”

Troup went 22-0 during the regular season, and while most of the wins were suspense-free, there were some moments of high drama.

Most notably, Troup had to rally from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Sandy Creek 44-43 at home.

Weldon was the late-game star for Troup when she made two free throws in the closing seconds to give her team the win.

It was a game that showed just how much determination this team has, how even when the odds are long, the players continue to believe.

“That’s all we know, just believing in the team,” Thornton said after that emotional win. “Somebody goes down, it’s the next man up. Whoever’s on the court, we’ve got faith in all those people.”

After an unblemished regular season, Troup beat Cedartown in the first round of the Region 5-AAAA tournament before losing to Sandy Creek in the title game.

The Lady Tigers were disappointed that night, but they weren’t going to let one setback derail everything they’d worked for.

Troup overwhelmed Chestatee 63-37 in the first round of the state tournament, and that was the program’s first state win since 2012.

That set up a second-round showdown with Cross Creek, and Troup had to head across the state to Augusta for that game.

On a night where so much went wrong, the Lady Tigers survived.

With Troup trailing by one point, Aniya Palmer pulled down a rebound of a missed free throw, and she sprinted down the floor and passed the ball to her freshman teammate, Alexcia Murphy.

Murphy calmly banked in the game-winning shot, and Troup celebrated a 46-45 win.

The Lady Tigers, so close to seeing their season end, were still alive.

“Even in those last six seconds, I told them what was going to happen in that timeout, and what we were going to do,” Thornton said. “They didn’t panic, and they made it happen, and we got out of there with a win.”

Another one of Troup’s star players, senior Amber Gilbert, scored 18 points that night and made five 3-pointers.

One of those 3-pointers came late in the game and pulled Troup even.

It was the sort of moment Gilbert has come to be known for over the years.

When the games mean the most, when the spotlight shines the brightest, Gilbert always seems to rise to the occasion.

One of Gilbert’s most dramatic moments came in the loss to Sandy Creek.

Gilbert went down with what looked like a serious knee injury in the third quarter, but she returned in the fourth quarter and made four 3-pointers in less than three minutes to give her team a chance.

Sandy Creek ultimately prevailed, but what an epic performance it was by Gilbert.

“She said coach, I’m ready,” Thornton said, recalling that moment in the Sandy Creek game when Gilbert came out of the locker room with a brace on the injured knee. “I asked her if she was ready to play defense, and she said I’m ready. She has the will to win. She wants to help her teammates so bad, so she’s willing to go back out there like that.”

After the state win over Cross Creek, Troup faced another challenging road test in the third round against McDonough.

It was a close game late, but Troup pulled away for a 58-48 victory to earn a spot in the final four.

Alexcia Murphy powered the Lady Tigers in that game with 25 points, but as has been the case throughout the season, everyone who played contributed.

“We knew if we lose, we’re going home, and we don’t want to go home,” Monyia Murphy said after that game. “So we went out there we shot the ball, played defense, we did our thing. We didn’t want to go home.”

Troup’s opponent in the semifinals was Carver, which won the Class AAAA state championship last season.

Troup, playing with the confidence and poise of a team that knows it can play with anyone, seized control in the second half and won 56-47.

The state tournament began with 32 teams hopeful of hoisting the state-championship trophy.

Now only two teams remain, including the Lady Tigers, who have come so far since that awful experience a year ago.

It’s a team that hasn’t shied away from the high expectations, and Thornton said they’ve had a championship “mindset since (preseason) conditioning.”

“They had the mindset that we’re playing for a state championship,” Thornton said. “I give them all the credit for that. That’s a goal that they had, and they were willing to put in the work. As a coach, I had to step up my game also. We watch film all the time and study the other team together. We spend time off the court together.”

The Lady Tigers are a true team. The players have the ability, the talent to run the floor with anyone, but it takes more than that.

With championship teams, there is often an unbreakable bond, and the attitude that the team is first in all things.

Troup has that.

The players and coaches care for each other, support one another, are interested in the only stat that matters, wins and losses.

“You can’t just be out there with talent,” Thornton said. “Everybody has talent. There may have been some teams that had more talent, but we’ve played together.”

TROUP VS. AMERICUS-SUMTER

WHAT: Class AAAA state-championship game

WHEN: Friday, 11 a.m.

WHERE: Macon Coliseum

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Troup (27-1) finished second in Region 5-AAAA and beat Chestatee (63-37), Cross Creek (46-45), McDonough (58-48) and Carver (56-47) in the state tournament; Americus-Sumter (28-2) finished second in Region 1-AAAA and beat Burke County (49-32), Marist (33-32), Spalding County (47-42) and Luella (56-51) in the state tournament