BY BRIAN BESCH
A battle between the two best girls squads in District 29-1A produced another fight to the end, as Goodrich defeated Leggett 74-62.
"It was our team protecting their home court," Goodrich Coach Ursula Hill said. "I told them they have to come out and it was a must-win if they want to compete for the district championship. We both took care of business, we are tied for co-champs (currently), and we are both aiming for that."
Hill said execution was the biggest difference between Tuesday's battle and the first match, a 53-50 Leggett victory further north on Highway 59.
"I told them it would be the little things that we worked on in practice after the loss that we had," she said. "That was going to really decide whether we were going to win or lose. I feel like down the stretch they executed and listened very well. We knew Leggett would be our biggest competitor, and right now, we're battling them for the number one seed. It's a dogfight every time we play them and we know it."
A 3-2 zone slowed the Lady Pirates early, as freshman Jamariyaa Harrell's bucket and rebounding helped the Lady Hornets fly out to a 4-0 lead. Harrell would also contribute an old-fashioned three-point play midway through the quarter.
Leggett would answer quickly with four of their own, to tie the contest.
Briunna Criswell was very accurate, hitting jumpers from all over the floor, while Tyanna Barlow nailed a three pointer from three feet behind the arc.
But, the Lady Hornets were impressive, working the ball around and finding easy, open shots. Passing, especially on fast breaks, helped Goodrich maintain a lead throughout the opening frame.
A 19-16 Lady Hornet advantage would be the result.
"Our defense was horrible, plus our shots were not falling," Leggett Coach Terri Barlow said. "We could not get a shot. The intensity was a lot different (from the first game). Goodrich had their players step up and play better ball this time. (Kristian) James had a lot of help and everybody was knocking down their shots. On our end, we could not knock them down and we couldn't grab a rebound."
A taller lineup in the second quarter helped the Lady Pirates on the boards and in slowing down Harrell underneath. James continued her hot shooting, pulling up for jump shots and leading fast breaks.
An increased margin at the half had Goodrich in front, 37-32.
"When we get behind five or 10 points, the momentum goes down and it's hard for them to come back," Barlow said. "It was just one of those games. We've been having easier games and we've been too relaxed. Hopefully, now we're not letting up for anybody and know that we have to work hard and we can't take it easy. It showed here. It's been four games since we played Goodrich. I told them they have to step it up, keep playing hard, grab rebounds, and move the ball. We did a lot of standing around instead of attacking the basket. But, Criswell did her part tonight; she hustled and she shot really well."
Freshman Jada Henderson started the second half well, hitting two field goals within two minutes. The second gave Goodrich a 43-32 lead, their largest of the game to that point.
Two of the biggest factors in keeping the pressure off James was the Goodrich freshmen.
"That is the leadership and experience that is finally catching up to us," Hill said. "The chemistry that I've been trying to get with them for the last three years is finally coming in. Getting that mix in, I feel like they are finally grasping onto a good rotation and knowing their roles. I start both of my freshmen and I told my upperclassmen, 'it's going to be a battle every day in practice. I've got some freshmen that are hungry to play.' My freshmen are really stepping up for us, especially in district, and they are working hard. James has been given a bit of leeway where she knows she has a rebounder there underneath and doesn't have to do it all. She's a little more relaxed now."
However, Leggett was not done. A 6-0 run would make it a game again.
The streak was broken by Henderson, who collected her third of five baskets in the quarter. Her final field goal would send the game into the fourth quarter with a 55-42 lead.
Into the final period, the difference in defensive pressure and energy level was noticeable. Goodrich had momentum and the only reason the game was still in doubt was the shooting of Criswell and Barlow.
James, who led the game with 34 points, slowed the game on offense in an attempt to run time. The Lady Hornet lead was as much as 16 with three minutes remaining.
"I told them there's going to be two or three girls on (James), so we can't hide from the ball," Hill said. "This is the game where I need the other four players to step up. Kristian's going to get her points regardless, but it has to be the other seven players that I play to step up. I really feel like every one of them stepped up in some sort of way tonight."
Among those who stood out were Harrell, who had 10 and grabbed key rebounds on both ends. Denedra Taylor added 11, while Henderson had 10 points in the third quarter and was irritating to opposing ball handlers.
For Leggett, Barlow poured in 31 and Criswell shot for 18.
Each team was accurate from the charity stripe, with Goodrich going 15-18, compared to the Lady Pirates' 12-15.
There will be a playoff game to decide district between the two teams if neither were to lose — most likely on Feb. 13.
A contest with Spurger is next for Goodrich on Friday, as Leggett travels to the coast to face High Island.