There is no greater feeling than finishing a season after a win.
The University Academy girls basketball team experienced that emotional high last week when it defeated The Veritas Academy (Miss.), 47-46, Saturday in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class 1A championship game to cap off a 25-3 season.
As they had all season, the Lady Lions fought tooth and nail to win the title, especially in the finals against Veritas. University clinched the title in the final seconds when junior guard Jada Swafford hit a pair of free throws with 13.4 seconds left, drawing a close to a back-and-forth matchup.
“The game was like a heavyweight fight,” Lady Lions coach Craig Whittington said. “It was probably the two best teams and it worked out like it was supposed to work out. It was evenly-matched.”
By virtue of winning the MAIS South State Class A tournament Feb. 14 over Claiborne Academy, the Lady Lions earned a bye into the quarterfinals.
Well-rested, University defeated Sylva-Bay Academy in the quarterfinals and Carroll Academy in the semifinals before its showdown with Veritas, in which it struggled in early.
“We started out struggling on the offensive end,” Whittington said. “We couldn’t get our shots to fall and our shots had been falling all year. A part of that was just nerves, and a lot of those players hadn’t been in that type of game before. But I was very proud of our defense; it kept us in the game. As poor of a shooting night that we were having, we never got down by more than five because of our defensive pressure.”
The Lady Lions forced 15 steals in the contest, including six by senior Courtney Branch, who also added 21 points and five rebounds. Branch was named to the All-MAIS Class 1A tournament team with junior Jada Swafford and freshmen ReJayla Williams and Jordyn Cross.
“For these kids to come together from nine different schools and not knowing or being around each other, it worked out,” Whittington said. “Being in MAIS, they’ve been closer because there’s so much travel involved. They’re around each other more than they are around their families.”
With the Class A title in tow, University opted out of the MAIS Overall Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi, this week due to wanting to get back into the classroom. Nevertheless, it does not take away anything that the Lady Lions have accomplished.
“I sort of made up my mind that if we won it all, I wanted our season to finish on that good note,” Whittington said. “We’ve been on the road for two weeks straight in hotels and almost playing every other night. I just felt like that we didn’t need to prove anything else.”
In end, University’s 25-3 season gets the proper icing on the cake with the tournament win.
“You can’t end it any better,” Whittington said. “When you have a season like this, you want your last memories to be walking off that court as state champions.”