Leake wins pairing of two proud girls’ basketball program in MAIS 5A Tourney

Published 10:00 am Saturday, February 19, 2022

John. R. Gray Gymnasium gleamed like a newly pressed dime on Tuesday. The bleachers overflowed with fans who’d paid $10 each to enter the MAIS 5A State Tournament. The concession stand churned out drinks and snacks as everyone wanted to be seated and sated when the finale of a four-game slate began around 8 p.m.

With the gym’s namesake sitting along one baseline and with former championship winning coach Gene “Moochie” Brit in attendance in the bleachers and former championship winning coach Jason Case overseeing the entire event as the Head of School — large swaths of BA basketball history were focused on the parquet playing surface to see the homestanding Lady Cougars take on the visitors from Leake Academy.

It was a game with more riding on it than any game played inside JRG Gymnasium since Case coached the team to its last state title in 2018 with a win over Marshall Academy on the same court.

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The opening round game was the win-or-go home variety and pitted two programs that have long basketball traditions.

Leake Academy might love girls’ basketball more than just about any other place on earth. For years the program was a winning machine led by Doyle Wolverton. Wolverton had an all-time record of 1,245-182 and won a pile of state championships during his time at the school that began in 1975.

Wolverton resigned in 2013 after a player accused him of biting her face during a game. His intensity while coaching the game was legendary, but a loss of control cost Wolverton his program.

He was replaced by one of his former players, current Leake coach Amanda Gulley Hatch.

Under Hatch, Leake has rarely missed a beat. Last season they were 37-2 and won the MAIS 4A State and Overall State Tournaments

With Brookhaven Academy long planned to host the state tournament this year and with them being favored in the south and Leake favored in the north, the expectation had been for the two teams to meet in a Saturday matinee for the title in front of a similar crowd as to the one they saw Tuesday.

That plan got squashed though by a couple of losses for each team in their tournaments last week. BA lost 26-23 to Central Hinds in the 5A South State Tournament semifinals. They’d beaten CHA earlier in the season, but the Cougars from Raymond were able to control the tempo, run off clock and hold on for a low-scoring win.

Leake has a deep-seated rivalry with Pillow Academy and had won two-out-of-three against the team from Greenville during the regular season. Last week in the 5A North Tournament finals though, Pillow got a 57-49 win.

BA finished South State up with a win over Copiah which put them as the no. 3 seed and squared them up with the no. 2 seed from the north, Leake.

If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to beat championship level teams whether it be in the first round or semifinals or finals.

That’s what third year BA head coach Ron Kessler told his team about playing Leake on Tuesday.

Tuesday, in the game’s early goings, Leake looked like a team made up of tiny Goliaths. They came out shooting the ball with confidence on the stage-side goal of the gym and led 22-9 after the first quarter.

As a team, Leake Academy went 9-of-19 from the 3-point line on the night. Junior Grace Maxey finished 5-of-8 from behind the arc and junior Emeri Warren was 2-of-3 from deep.

Success early from the 3-point line was part of Leake jumping out to a big lead, but the home team began to chip away at that advantage as the game progressed.

Leake led 32-23 at halftime, but the third quarter was won by BA as they outscored the Rebelettes13-10 in the period.

Back-to-back 3-pointer by Brookhaven sophomore guard Reagan Fortenberry sparked a run that cut the LA advantage to 32-31 with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter.

Just one minutes later though, a layup by Leake junior point guard Miriam Prince and then a steal and corner 3-pointer on the ensuing inbounds pushed the lead back out to 39-31. In an instant, Leake had regained momentum thanks to three straight turnovers by BA.

Prince came in averaging a team best 19.3 points per game for Leake, but she scored just five points Tuesday. BA senior point guard Anne Brantley Warren put forth an exceptional effort of on-ball defense as she matched up with Prince.

Coaches teach to focus on the waistline of the dribbler as their shoulders or ball might feign one way, but their hips won’t lie as to their ultimate destination.

That’s what Warren did on possession after possession as Prince became more of a distributor than a scorer, handing out 10 assists on the night, but only scoring five points.

With a lead in the fourth quarter, Leake allowed BA to get within four points late, but then made the home team foul and sank the ensuing free-throws to take a 55-45 win and move their record to 32-3 on the season.

Leake and Central Hinds face off in one semifinal while Copiah Academy and Bowling Green play in the other semi on Friday. Copiah, coached by BA alum Drake Flowers, pulled the upset of the tournament with a 53-50 win over Pillow Academy on Wednesday.

The season for the seven member BA senior class — Anna Caroline Adams, Bailee Goodson, Madison Moak, Abby Grace Richardson, Mallory Martin, Emily Claire Felder and Warren — ends with a 33-5 record.

“What a group, what a group of girls that I’ve had the honor to coach over the last three years,” said Kessler. “So fearless and they came to compete night in and night out. They’ve got nothing to hang their heads about.”

Junior forward Lillie Gates led the way with 15 points in the loss. Richardson added 10 points and Fortenberry scored nine points. Felder and Goodson added three pints each while Warren, Moak and Emma Gates added one point apiece.

“We missed some free throws and some easy shots inside and Leake doesn’t miss,” said Kessler. “The atmosphere was electric. Our fans don’t just support us here, they travel wherever we go.”

It won’t be the last meeting between the schools.

In Madden, the small community where Leake is located southwest of Philadelphia and southeast of Carthage, their upper elementary girls drill on fundamentals with a religious fervor. They’re called “Tomorrow’s Terrors.”

At BA they have a similar program that teaches ball handling to the younger Cougars and it’s known as the “Little Dribblers.”

It was also far from the first meeting between the two proud programs. A Leake fan gazed up at the championship banners that surround the rafters at BA and pointed to one from the mid 1980s.

“My sister played on a really good team at Leake that year,” he said. “I remember how Brookhaven beat them in the state tournament, but we came back and beat them the next week in the overall tournament — these two teams are always going to be good.”


Cliff Furr is the sports editor of The Daily Leader. He can be reached via email at sports@dailyleader.com.