The G.W. Carver girls had won three of the previous four meetings this season with Jeff Davis, so Volunteer coach LaKenya Knight knew she needed a different game plan for the Central Regional final at Alabama State’s Acadome on Friday morning.
It almost worked.
Jeff Davis trimmed a double-digit lead to a basket with just over three minutes but ran out of magic as the Wolverines held on for a 59-50 victory and their third regioinal title in the last five years.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” Carver coach Michelle Simmons said. “We’ve played Jeff Davis four times this season, and as a coach, I worry about my team getting too relaxed or wondering what I’m going to say to them to get them motivated. Whenever you play Jeff Davis, it’s really a tough battle.”
Carver (26-2) will face Hoover, a 47-33 winner over Sparkman, in the semifinals of the state tournament at noon Thursday at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.
Carver made two trips to the state tournament in 2009 and 2010 as a Class 5A team, reaching the championship game in 2010, but it will mark the first time back to Birmingham as a 6A team since a 70-38 loss to Hoover in 2003.
Jeff Davis ends the season at 23-9, including four losses to Carver.
“When it comes to area tournaments, from that point on, you never run the same offense you’ve run all year,” Knight said. “We played man-to-man (on defense). We’re very young, so the ball handling skills weren’t there, but we challenged them to take care of the ball and make layups. If you can change your offense in one day, that says a lot about your team. I thought we came out and did a heck of a job.”
The problem with the man-to-man defense is there was no one with the experience or size to guard Carver center Tatyana Calhoun and the sophomore responded with 11 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots to earn most valuable player honors.
“I’m so excited,” Calhoun said. “I can’t wait for Birmingham. I can’t believe it. I’ve never been here before. It’s anticipation. I just keep thinking about it over and over.”
Calhoun dominated early (and had a crucial basket with a minute left to put Carver up by four), but the game started slipping away in the fourth quarter as Jeff Davis freshman Jasmine Walker scored 13 of her 22 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, that pulled Jeff Davis within two at 49-47 with 3:37 left and again at 52-50 with 1:15 left. But the next five possessions for the Vols ended with four missed shots and a pair of turnovers, allowing Carver to escape with the win.
Carver, which won in double digits in the Area 6 tournament final two weeks ago, was in command again in the first quarter as Calhoun and Pamela Allen dominated the paint. Calhoun had six points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in the opening quarter, threatening to turn the game into a rout.
“She’s been playing for two years,” Knight said. “She’s a tough kid to guard. But we have confidence in our guards, and we put pressure on (Carver’s guards) and were looking for backside help whenever she got the ball. But she’s going to get her points. You can’t stop her.”
That pressure resulted in foul trouble for Carver’s perimeter players, allowing Jeff Davis to stay in the game.
“Keyuanna (Thompson) and Taja-Wana (Russell) both had three fouls and we were concerned about that,” Simmons said, “but we needed both of them. We needed a ball handler, and they both played through it.”
“It was very frustrating, but I knew I had to play smart, which is to play with my feet and not my hands” said Thompson, who joined Calhoun and Allen on the all-tournament team.
In the fourth quarter, the Vols made one final push, using a pair of 3-pointers from Walker to trim the deficit to a basket.
“We knew she was going to score points, but we wanted a hand in her face pretty much every time she shot,” Simmons said. “She’s an excellent shooter. The thing you do for her is make her work. When she has to work, legs get tired.”
Knight had her team in position for the upset, but Jeff Davis made just one field goal over the final three minutes and couldn’t take advantage of Carver’s foul problems.
“We told them our lights on (for the bonus free throws),” Knight said. “Any time our light is on, that means we’re shooting free throws. In think we went down a couple of times and every time there was a turnover. We never got the opportunity to go to the line.”
That lone field goal, by Walker, pulled Jeff Davis within three points and the freshman center made a free throw moments later, but missed her final three 3-point attempts.
“I think (one more) would have tipped it over (in our favor),” Knight said. “She only had six points in the first half because she was frustrated. I kept telling her, ‘You can’t play frustrated.’ I think that’s youth. She just turned 15, and she’s never been in an environment like this.”
For the Vols, it was a disappointing finish for a group that includes five freshmen, two sophomores and just one senior on the roster.
“For us being such a young team, it’s a good feeling,” junior guard Ayanna Ellis said. “I told my team before we got here how it was going to be. It was a championship game so we had to play hard.”