VALDOSTA –– Close, yet not close enough.
That’s how the Lowndes Vikettes felt after a home loss in the region tournament to Tift County, 55-43 Tuesday night.
The Vikettes played poised out of the gate and managed a much better showing than the last time they faced the Blue Devils in the Crimson Coliseum.
When they hosted Tift on Feb. 1, Lowndes trailed from the onset of the contest, facing a 19-5 deficit after the first quarter.
On Tuesday night, there was a different Vikettes’ team in the arena. They took a 14-12 advantage into the second quarter thanks to a nine point swing from two Faith Johnson three’s and a triple from Amayah Espanol.
In the second quarter, Tift started to gain its footing while the Vikettes became stagnant offensively.
The well of shots that gave Lowndes momentum and the lead began to dry up. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils grew more comfortable, knocking down shots and finding open teammates for easy baskets.
At the half, Tift led 29-24 but for a Vikettes team that has been notorious for their third-quarter runs, hope wasn’t lost.
The third quarter was a back and forth affair that saw Tift outscore Lowndes by five points to extend its lead.
In the fourth quarter, head coach Antonia Tookes deployed her strategy of subbing in more sound defensive players from her bench and taking off her offensive savvy players to prevent them from getting fouls.
The Vikettes were trailing by seven with more than three minutes remaining when tragedy struck.
Junior Taleyah Belcher—who Tookes noted as her best defender—attempted to retrieve a rebound when she landed awkwardly, let out a shriek that was heard across the gym and fell to the floor.
Belcher had to be helped off the court as play resumed and Lowndes struggled to contain the Blue Devils without one of their best defenders.
Though the Vikettes threw jabs, none of them connected as missed layups and poor free throw shooting ultimately doomed them.
When the final buzzer sounded, basketball came second to the emotions that Tookes felt for her injured player.
“It’s a 97 percent chance that Taleyah Belcher tore her ACL,” Tookes said after the game. “Her first love is track. So she won’t be out there at track this season. It’s a tough loss for us because she’s my best defender coming off the bench. It takes a whole year to get back if it’s torn. I’m praying that it’s not torn … If it is a torn ACL it’s probably going to take her two years to get back like she’s supposed to be and she’ll be a senior next year.”
For the two senior Vikettes, the final home game played will come with a mixed feeling. On one hand it was a loss but when they look back at the foundation they laid, they should be proud.
Taje Middleton had 14 points and was the main source of offense for the Vikettes in the fourth quarter. Kiersten Graham was able to use her versatility to get the Vikettes out of tough spots when Tift tried to press in the backcourt.
“I really believe that they gave me everything they had,” Tookes said about her two seniors. “For some reason we just weren’t clicking as a group. We had some box out, some didn’t. One person was talking, the other people weren't. Until you get everybody on the same page, doing the same thing, wanting the same thing, working hard to get the same thing, that’s the only way we’re going to achieve a championship of any kind at Lowndes high school."
With the loss, Lowndes will await the results of Region 4-7A tournament to determine their GHSA playoff opponent.