LaGrange Academy wins GIAA Class A girls basketball state championship

Published 8:48 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

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22-1. State Champs. Immortal.

The LaGrange Academy girls basketball team captured its second state title in three years as they used a second half surge to beat Fullington Academy 50-32 on Friday night at Hawkins Arena in Macon.

What does it take to win a state title? Talent, a great coach and more than a dash of luck. If the Warriors were lucky to escape the semifinals by coming from six points down in the fourth quarter to beat Robert Toombs 55-50 on Wednesday, they were anything but lucky on Friday afternoon as they tore through the no. 2 ranked Trojans to prove they were the best team in GIAA Class A in 2022-23. 

This season was not an accident, the Warriors had a team togetherness and spirit that bound the eight girls that lifted the state trophy together forever. 

“Yesterday, I was a little upset because they didn’t come out to the gym for the last practice, and I was like ‘where is everybody?’” Warrior coach Ken Klinger said. “They were all writing seven different note cards to the other players on the team about how much they love one another, and they read those different cards on the way up here. I knew when they did something like that there was no way they were going to lose this game.”

The first half was a nervy affair as both teams struggled to get into the game offensively. LaGrange Academy’s vaunted defense reared its head in the first quarter as the Warriors stifled the Trojans offense, which allowed them to take a 10-5 lead after the first quarter. A 5-0 run but the Warriors to start the second quarter gave them their first double-digit lead of the game. It was not to last as the Trojans came storming back and the Warriors lead was just one going into halftime (19-18).

“I wasn’t really freaked out,” Klinger said. “I told the girls that we missed a bunch of shots that we usually make and those will start falling in the second half.”

Foul trouble plagued the Warriors, which allowed some of their bench players to get minutes on a momentous occasion.

“It was very scary at first, but once I got out there it was fun and I settled in,” Marley Hand said. 

“We had an awesome energy,” EG Eiler said. “The whole team did. From our bench to the fans. This crowd was amazing.”

The Warriors came out of the halftime break blazing with Jazmin Thornton connecting on a three-pointer, Tesia Garret-Hammett getting a layup to go and Laura Knight hitting a jump shot as the Warriors retook momentum. They were not alone as it looked like the Trojans were getting momentum back late in the third quarter, Kayla McBride hit a big 3-pointer then dished out a well-timed assist to Anna Beth Kinnersley in the post to give the Warriors a 10-point cushion.

After missing some makeable shots in the first half, Anna Beth Kinnersley came alive when it mattered most, dominating on the boards in the second half and using her height to get easy points in the interior. The junior led the Warriors in scoring for the second straight game, finishing with 15 on the night including 11 in the second half. 

Every time the Trojans clawed back into the game, the Warriors had an answer. After a 3-pointer from the Trojans to start the fourth quarter cut the LaGrange Academy lead down to 37-32, Laura Knight answered the call, scoring the next two baskets for the Warriors which all but sealed the deal.

“There was an awesome energy from our fans everytime we did something good,” Knight said. “It’s like an ego boost.”

When McBride hit a jump shot to put the Warriors up 44-32 with a little over three minutes left, cheers of LGA could be heard throughout the arena. 

By the end of the game, that winning feeling had come bursting through the seams of everybody wearing blue and orange. Hugs, smiles and more than a few tears flowed down cheeks ensued with an outpouring of emotion flooded over the Warriors as a season that began all the way back in the summer workouts, ended with the team capturing their most coveted prize. 

“We really worked hard for this all season,” Kinnersley said. “We pushed ourselves hard starting last summer, and I feel like it is well deserved.”

It was a dream come true for those who had been with the program for years and the newcomers. LaGrange Academy had upperclassmen girls transfer in — Thornton (junior) and Garrett–Hammett (senior) — who slotted in like missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that saw the Warriors lose to the very same Fullington Academy team in last year’s semifinals. 

“Jaz (Thornton) came in and right away and was a leader for us,” Klinger said. “Tesia came to us as a senior and it is tough to transfer in as a senior, but she brought a ton of senior leadership and intensity and good defense.”

Garrett-Hammett was not sure what was in her basketball future when she transferred to LaGrange Academy at the start of the school year but found a way to make a big impact in her lone season as a Warrior. 

“I didn’t know if this was possible,” Garrett-Hammett said. “We came together and won as a team, and it feels good to go out my senior year with a bang.”

Thornton was one of the best — if not the best — players in GIAA this year, averaging 27.7 points,  7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 6.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game coming into the state title matchup. Her season of dominance was not to be denied as she finally got her hands on a state championship. 

“This is my first state championship, and it feels great,” Thornton said. “We did it. This is what we worked all season for. It feels good to see all that hard work pay off.”

These two were not the only fresh faces this year, the Warriors also added Eric Bowles as an assistant coach, and he added another positive voice for the girls as well a different way to see the game.

While they had some new faces, they also had some lifelong Warriors. Nobody knows the Warrior basketball DNA quite like McBride, who was a leader for the team and played varsity for five years.

“Kayla McBride is the ultimate LaGrange Academy Warrior,” Klinger said. “I can’t tell you enough about the leadership she provides for this team and this school. She will be so missed next year. She did so many little things that nobody notices for the team.”

She was a part of the championship winning team two years ago, but there was something special about this year’s victory.

“There were some people who questioned our strength of schedule and how many players we had, but I think we proved that we are a legit team, and we came out today and proved that,” McBride said. 

With two seniors departing, players like first-year junior Tasha Brawner will have to step up and fill a bigger role. She got to work with a championship squad in her first year on the team, and she enjoyed being a part of the ride as she is heading into what could be a bigger senior season on the team next year. 

“This is my first season playing basketball, and I’m so glad I decided to play this year,” Brawner said. “To do it with these girls is special.” 

By only losing one game in which they were short handed and played extended minutes with just four players on the court, winning a region title, and capturing the state crown, this Warrior team will live on forever in LaGrange Academy lore.