Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

December 25, 2012

No. 8: Lady Blazers make the Sweet 16

VALDOSTA — Ideally, teams hope to play their best in the postseason. In March, that’s exactly what happened to the Valdosta State women’s basketball team.

In the South Region tournament, the Lady Blazers played three of their best games of the 2011-12 season. They upset two higher-seeded teams and nearly won the tournament.

After the tournament ended, VSU head coach Kiley Hill said this was one of his favorite teams he’s ever coached.

“I’ve been at Valdosta State for 12 years now, and they rank in my top two — I know I’m not supposed to rank them — all-time favorite teams I’ve coached,” Hill said. “These kids are special. They will be successes beyond the game of basketball.”

“You can’t ask for more from this team,” senior guard Sczeny Hartry added. “This is a team I won’t forget. I love this team.”

Valdosta State finished the season 22-8.

Valdosta State’s run started against third-seeded Fort Valley State, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions, and it started slowly. The Lady Blazers struggled from the floor in the first half, making just 5 of 28 field goal attempts, and they found themselves trailing 22-14 at halftime.

In the locker room at halftime, Hill asked his team if they had already decided that they were beaten, and he reminded them that there were still 20 minutes left to play. If he was intending to give them a wake up call, he succeeded. The Lady Blazers responded by dominating the second half.

With her team trailing 24-14, Hartry buried a three-pointer. Then she stole the ball and passed to Maylisa Johnson for a layup. Kourtnee Williams’ jumper and a three-point play by Brittany Ferguson tied the score, 24-24. Then Hartry drained another three-pointer to give the Lady Blazers their first lead of the game, 27-24. Ferguson’s layup made it 29-24. That 15-0 run gave VSU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

The Lady Blazers continued to build on their lead the rest of the game, and walked off the court with a 59-47 victory.

Valdosta State outscored Fort Valley State 45-25 in the second half. The same VSU team that had shot 17.9 percent from the floor in the first half shot an impressive 68.4 percent from the floor in the second half, including 4 for 4 from three-point range.

“I’m really proud of our kids from the standpoint that we didn’t react, we responded,” Hill said. “That’s something that this group this entire year has done.”

Hartry led the Lady Blazers with 20 points. Ferguson added 15 points and eight rebounds. Brittney Nelson had a double-double, with 14 points and 14 rebounds.

The next day, the Lady Blazers defeated Florida Southern, the South’s No. 2 seed, 67-63.

Valdosta State shot 47.2 percent from the floor in the win. The three-pointer was a big weapon for the Lady Blazers, who made seven of their 17 attempts from beyond the arc.

“I thought Valdosta played really well,” Florida Southern head coach Jarrod Olson said after the game. “They really shot the ball well, I thought, from the perimeter. Seven three-pointers — I don’t know what their season high is, but I think that’s got to be in the neighborhood.”

“Two very good basketball teams were going to be on the floor tonight, and it was going to come down to who was able to (execute better),” Hill said.

For the second day in a row, Hartry, Ferguson and Nelson stepped up for the Lady Blazers. Hartry was VSU’s leading scorer again, scoring 20 points. Nelson had another double-double, this time scoring 15 points and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds. Ferguson scored 11 points.

The Lady Blazers led most of the game, but Florida Southern stayed in their rearview mirror throughout the night.

Valdosta State led 33-27 at halftime, but early in the second half, the Lady Moccasins scored seven straight points and tied the score at 34-34. The Lady Blazers answered with a 7-0 run of their own, and built their lead back to seven points, 41-34.

Then Florida Southern made another run. Megan Dzikas drained a three-pointer and a jumper on consecutive possessions. Then Danielle Walsh tied the score, 41-41, with a layup. Two minutes later, Dzikas buried another three-pointer, and gave Florida Southern its second lead of the night, 46-43.

Trailing for only the second time all game, Valdosta State responded.

Ferguson made a jumper. After a turnover, Johnson fed Bena Hanyard in the lane for a layup to put the Lady Blazers back on top, 47-46. A free throw by Ferguson and a jumper by Johnson gave VSU a four-point lead, then Nelson got an open look and drained a three-pointer, giving Valdosta State a 53-46 lead with 6:18 left to play.

That run was big for Valdosta State. Florida Southern wouldn’t get any closer than four points the rest of the game.

“I think it was massive,” Hill said about the way his team answered every time Florida Southern started building momentum. “This time of year, it’s about runs, and separation and momentum. We felt that we gave a good effort the first 20 minutes, and we knew how good a basketball team (Florida Southern is). I said (to our players) we’d have to answer those runs.”

Five times in the final 4:40, Florida Southern cut Valdosta State’s lead down to four points. But each time, the Lady Blazers answered with points, and did not let the Lady Moccasins get any closer.

“I am so proud of the young women who are in our program. Across the board, a tremendous team effort,” Hill said. “Our staff put together, I felt, a great game plan, and these kids just came out and executed to perfection.”

That victory put the Lady Blazers in the region championship game two days later against Rollins, the host school and the top team in the region.

The Tars were having one of their best seasons ever (they would end up going 28-6 and making it to the final four), but Valdosta State gave them a fight for 40 minutes.

The Lady Blazers jumped out to leads of 7-2 and 13-7 early in the game. Rollins battled back to tie the score at 16-16, and again at 22-22. The Tars then scored 10 of the final 13 points before halftime, and headed to the locker room with a 32-25 halftime lead. Early in the second half, Valdosta State got a three-point play by Ferguson and a three-pointer by Nelson to cut Rollins’ lead down to one, 34-33. The Lady Blazers would be on the Tars’ heels the rest of the game.

With 2:55 left in the game, Ferguson drove the lane and scored to tie the score at 53-53. Rollins’ Ashley Jones answered with a three-pointer, giving the Tars a 56-53 lead with 2:18 to go. Hartry tried to answer Jones’ shot on VSU’s next two possessions, but with a hand in her face, neither three-point attempt would fall. But the Lady Blazers got another defensive stop, and had the ball in the final seconds.

With 4.5 seconds left, Rollins chose to foul Hartry and send her to the free throw line, instead of giving her a chance to try another three-pointer. Hartry made the first shot, then intentionally missed the second one. Hanyard jumped in and grabbed the rebound. She put up a quick shot, but it was off the mark. Rollins’ Sarah Taylor grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 0.5 seconds left. Even though Taylor missed the front end of a one-and-one, VSU didn’t have time to grab the rebound and take a shot before the buzzer sounded. Rollins had won the South Region championship, 56-54, and the Lady Blazers had barely come up short.

“I’m happy for Rollins. They beat a very good basketball team tonight — one that I’m very, very proud of. I really enjoyed the journey with this team,” Hill said.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy, but had no idea how hard it actually was to win this game," Rollins head coach Glenn Wilkes Jr. said. "Valdosta is a heck of a team, and we knew they were going to keep coming at us all night. That's exactly what happened."

Ferguson had a big night for the Lady Blazers. She scored a game-high 20 points, pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds and was all over the court on both ends.

“Brittany Ferguson just about single-handedly willed that team to victory,” Wilkes said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a tougher kid, just all around. (She) guards anybody, rebounds, does whatever the team needs her to do.”

Later that month, Hill was chosen the South Region Coach of the Year. Ferguson was chosen an honorable mention All-American. The senior forward averaged 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Lady Blazers in 2011-12.

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