It was midway through the third quarter that Seventh Region rivals Male and Manual were trading punches in the championship game at Valley High, Monday night. That’s when Male senior forward Joelle Johnson banked in a shot in traffic.
Johnson finished with eight points and seven rebounds. But that goal seemed to loosen things up for Male which went on to beat Manual, the defending regional champions, 53-35. The Lady Bulldogs which last won a regional title in 2015 outscored the Lady Crimsons 17-7 in the third quarter.
Male (22-7) and a winner of six straight advances to Rupp Arena to play 16th Region champion, Boyd County, a 63-47 winner Russell. The girls have a week off. Male won’t play until Thursday, March 14 at 1:30 p.m.
“It feels really good. I know my team and I have put in a lot of hours and have been yelled at a lot,” said Cameron Browning who finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assist.
“We all have put in a lot of hours. Its blood, sweat and a lot of tears went into this to be able do this. This means the a lot…it means the world to me,” said Browning.
Male led 22-18 at halftime and had made just nine of 22 shots from the field and had eight turnovers. But the Lady Bulldogs started making shots in the third quarter, six of 12 from the floor.
“I just knew I had to focus on that shot,” said Johnson of her basket in traffic between several defenders. “That was really a key point.”
Sophomore Alana Stevenson led Male with 16 points making five of eight field goals which included two of five three point goals. “This feels really good,” said Stevenson.
“We’ve been fighting for this for a while. They (beat us) in the region like two years in a row. We wanted revenge.”
Male led 39-25 after three quarters and continued its assault of its rivals. The Lady Bulldogs finished making 11 of 21 from the field during the second half. For the game Male shot 46.5 percent and out rebounded Manual 36-27.
Freshman Ayanna Stroud led Manual (21-10) with 15 points while senior Nila Blackford who averages 19 points and 11 rebounds was held to 11 points and six rebounds. Male’s 2-3 zone limited Manual to 13 of 46 shooting from the field for 28.3 percent
“They are a great basketball team and they really played well today,” said Manual coach Jeff Sparks. “I think they ramped up the pressure on our guards. We really struggled to handle the ball.”
At times Blackford had a player guarding her from behind and the front. “We really struggled to find her and they were collapsing on her,” said Sparks. “She’s a big weapon for us. They just did a good job of taking us out of our stuff the second half.”
Male coach Champ Ligon said his team seems to be playing its best now.
“All the girls have improved during the course of the year and we’ve kind of jelled together. We are playing at a much higher level than earlier in the year,” said Ligon.
It was the third time Male and Manual played this year with each team splitting the first two games. Manual has derailed Male several times during the post season in the last couple years.
“It took me years and years and years to win that first region,” said Ligon. “You get a taste of it and you want to go back. The last three years have been pretty painful. We’ve had some really, really good teams.”
“We’ve had some devastating things happen to us. We had a bad injury and we lost to Manual in overtime. Those hurt,” said Ligon.
Ligon gave praise to his players and assistant coaches. “Everybody played well. Everybody,” said Ligon.
On the other hand Manual finishes its season on a down note. “We disrupted Male for a half. We just couldn’t sustain it. I think we over achieved in a lot of ways. To be in this game to have this kind of opportunity. I’m so proud of them,” said Sparks.
Now Ligon and Male can enjoy another trip to the Sweet 16.
Male’s Browning, Destiny Combs and Alana Striverson were selected to the all-region team. Blackford and Nyah Smith were selected from Manual.