Nobody better in MAIS 5A girls’ basketball than Brookhaven Academy

Published 8:38 pm Saturday, February 18, 2023

As the season progressed and the wins piled up and the losses became few and far between, there was a feeling among the parents, fans and supporters of the Brookhaven Academy girls’ basketball team that the squad they were watching was the best in MAIS 5A basketball.

On Saturday in Greenwood, Brookhaven Academy (39-3) showed that belief was well-founded by beating Leake Academy 42-36 in the MAIS 5A State Tournament championship game.

Leake Academy (34-6) boasted back-to-back state championships and had been the team that eliminated Brookhaven from the postseason last year.

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Last year is last year though and the team that Brookhaven Academy coach Ron Kessler trotted out on Saturday is one that has grown in confidence throughout the season as the starting lineup of two seniors, one junior, one sophomore and an eighth grader kept gelling and improving.

With Pillow Academy’s recently refurbished Stribling Gymnasium packed with fans from both championship rich programs, nerves were high in the early going.

Leake senior guard Morgan Freeny banked in a 3-pointer to score the first points of the game as the opening quarter stayed scoreless for the first three minutes of action.

Shooting the ball from deep was a strategy that Leake was going to rely on throughout the game as they start four guards and a forward and tried to pull the two senior starters from BA — 6-foot forwards Lillie and Emam Gates — away from the basket with motion and flare-screens focused around the 3-point line.

Brookhaven Academy led 8-7 after the first quarter, but Leake got a 3-pointer from senior forward Emeri Warren to go up 10-8 early in the second quarter.

The Cougars had a size advantage, but Leake is a team that rebounds the ball well offensively as the guards on the team chase down long misses before the opposing post players can respond.

Not letting Leake getting hot from deep and not allowing the pace of the game to slip from its control was one of the main goals for Kessler and his team. 

They’d seen what that looked like last season against Leake in the first round of the 2022 MAIS 5A State Tournament hosted by BA.

That night, Leake got hot early, built a 13-point first quarter lead behind a barrage of deep 3-pointers and then nursed that lead by playing good defense and making free throws late.

Leake senior point guard Miriam Prince made a 3-pointer to put her team ahead 15-10 early in the second quarter. Prince is the best player on Leake’s roster and has long been in the conversation as one of the best players in the MAIS.

Prince suffered a leg injury that she tried to return from during the season and Leake was forced to play much of the year without her due to complications from surgery.

Immediately after that 3-pointer by Price, Leake got a steal and a layup off their full-court pressure and went ahead 17-10.

One player who stood out for BA in the matchup between the schools last season was wing Reagan Fortenberry.

Fortenberry made some big shots to get her team back into the game against Leake in 2022 and you could see her aggression with the ball pay off once Leake went ahead this time.

Her drive to the basket after Leake went up seven got a pair of free-throws for Emma Gates. Gates missed both shots, but Fortenberry tracked down the offensive rebound, dribbled out to the corner and calmy sunk a 3-pointer that made the score 17-13 for Leake.

With just under 60 seconds left until halftime, Fortenberry got open on the wing when her defender got caught up by Lillie Gates posting up in the paint.

Sophomore point guard Ella Smith found Fortenberry with a bounce pass and  the junior wing sunk her second 3-pointer of the game.

The halftime score stood at 17-16 for Leake Academy.

On Friday, BA beat the homestanding Mustangs from Pillow Academy to make the championship game. That game had tons of fouls and forced both coaches to go to their benches in order to spell players in foul trouble.

That wasn’t the case in the title game. Other than junior Mallory Martin coming in during the first half, Kessler played his starters the entire game.

Leake went 4-of-17 from the 3-point line in the first half and you could see that LA coach Amanda Hatch wanted her team to be more aggressive going to the basket in the third quarter.

What awaited the Rebels in the paint was the long reach of the Gates twins, as they blocked or altered shots at the rim whenever Leake drove to the basket.

With 1:44 remaining in the third quarter, Warren made her second straight 3-pointer that gave Leake the lead back at 28-27. Her make was the third 3-point shot of that possession as the Rebels twice ran down misses for offensive rebounds and extra shots.

Leake led 30-29 going into the final eight minutes.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Warren splashed through a 3-pointer that put LA ahead 33-29.

From there on out, Brookhaven Academy started making game-winning type plays as Leake just scored three more points over the final 7:40 of the game.

Smith, running the point for the Cougars, drove the ball into the lane and calmly cashed in a layup that went right at the Leake full-court defensive pressure.

The final Leake basket of the game came on a made 3-pointer by Warren with 3:42 left in the game.

It gave Leake one final lead at 36-35. Warren led Leake with 17 points in the loss.

BA tied the game at 36-36 on an Emma Gates free throw with 2:51 remaining in the game.

Leake then ran 50 seconds off the clock looking for a good shot, before putting up a 3-pointer that they grabbed the offensive rebound for.

Prince put up a shot that missed and gave BA the ball back with 86 seconds remaining in the game.

In a tense game with a title on the line, it can be one bounce of the ball that makes the difference in winning and losing.

It felt like the biggest bounce of the night when the way of Brookhaven to give the white-clad Cougars the lead for good.

Smith drove in for BA and put up a shot that was deflected by three different Leake defenders that kept the ball from getting to the backboard.

As the basketball looked like it was going out of bounds, Prince saved it back in bounds, right into the waiting hands of Lillie Gates. 

Gates quickly laid the ball up and was fouled — to the delight of the large contingent of BA fans that made the trip to Greenwood.

The free-throw was sunk by Gates, BA led 39-36 with 41 seconds left and though no one knew it yet, the Cougars had the game won.

Leake got two looks from the 3-point line to try and tie, but both shots missed, and BA made 3-of-4 free throws late to ice the win.

For the game, Leake finished 9-of-38 from the 3-point line. Brookhaven Academy went 4-of-17 from deep and 12-of-18 from the free throw line.

Lillie Gates led BA with 11 points. Fortenberry scored nine points, Emma Gates added eight points, Smith scored eight points and eighth grader Anne Rylea Thurman scored six points for the Cougars.

Fortenberry, Smith, Emma Gates and Lillie Gates were all named to the 5A All-Tournament Team.

The fun isn’t over for Kessler and his team. Next week they’ll play in the MAIS Overall Basketball Tournament. The Overall Tournament is played at Mississippi College and features the top three teams from the combined divisions within MAIS basketball.

Brookhaven Academy will begin Overall Tournament play on Thursday by taking on Hartfield Academy, the no. 3 seed from the 6A State Tournament.