Danielle Ballard, a junior at Memphis Central (Memphis, Tenn.), vividly remembers how the Lady Warriors were knocked out of the state tournament her freshman year. She remembers head coach Niki Bray pleading with her upperclassmen to convert their free throws as the freshmen were doing. The result was a one-point loss to Hillsboro (Nashville, Tenn.).
It is one of those moments that has stuck with Ballard and one she drew upon in Central's 72-59 win over Riverdale (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) in the state championship game.
"I didn't want that to happen again," Ballard said. "I'm an upperclassman now, so I had to just get control and we had to take over the game. I told Nina (Davis) and Aaliyah (Whiteside) we needed to take over the game."
Ballard and Davis, just a sophomore, scored 21 points apiece and the two combined to shoot 16 of 20 from the free-throw line in a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class AAA championship game that went back and forth.
To declare that championship game a defining moment for Central's season, minimizing it to a sports cliché, is inadequate.
In late January, following a close overtime loss by Central in a non-conference road game at Riverdale, Bray said something, which now seems eerily prophetic, as if she knew what she was doing during this entire roller-coaster season.
"I would love to have eight losses on our record and win a state championship, rather than have one loss and not win it," Bray said.
Well at 29-9, Central is bringing a AAA state title to Memphis, and to anywhere in West Tennessee for that matter, for the first time since 1985 when Melrose (Memphis, Tenn.) won the crown.
According to the TSSAA record book, the only championship the Lady Warriors have ever claimed in girls' basketball was in 1922, prior to the TSSAA's formation, and it's the oldest record maintained by the organization.
Bray's squad fundraised tens of thousands of dollars to take on a traveling road schedule that tripped the 9,000-mile mark on the odometer.
Central played one of the toughest schedules in the country, taking on Nike's two big holiday tournaments, the Iolani Classic (Dec. 9-11) in Hawaii and followed it up with the Tournament of Champions (Dec. 18-22) in Arizona. In true Central fashion, that had to be done the difficult way. The district allows teams just one trip per season that exceeds 600 miles round-trip, so the Lady Warriors stayed out on the road between the two tournaments.
Further complicating things was the shooting death of a Central student-athlete William Bibbs, a junior known as "Peanut" and friend of several on the girls' basketball team, but none closer than Ballard. The news reached the team while they were on the road and preparing for their gauntlet of tough competition at the TOC.
His death was understandably a big distraction, but after a first-round win over Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.), the wheels began to come off for Central. The team would lose its final three games in Arizona, by an average of 20 points.
So as the team was bouncing back during the New Year and trying to find its way, Central was dealt another blow with the stabbing death of Tina Stewart, a former Central standout (2004-08) and junior guard for Middle Tennessee State University. But unlike December when tragedy temporarily pulled the team apart, this time was different.
"We just stayed together and leaned on each other," Whiteside said. "(God) always puts us through things for a reason."
Stewart's funeral was held the same day as the state championship game, just hours before tipoff. Bray hopped in a car and made the nearly four-hour drive back to Memphis from MTSU in Murfreesboro, site of the TSSAA tournament.
According to Bray, the players made a collective decision that Stewart's spirit was right there with them in Murfreesboro and they didn't all need to caravan back to Memphis for what would amount to 20 minutes at the funeral.
After briefly mourning and being there for Stewart's parents, Bray jumped back in the car, hoping for a miracle to get her back to MTSU in time for the game. But the interstate was jammed in Memphis. On short notice the Sherriff's Department was unable to provide an escort past the bottleneck, so Bray turned to former Central assistant coach John Dawson, who led a back-roads journey that somehow got Bray back to her team in time.
After spending most of the season wondering if they were good enough, Central had a new focus and chemistry. Tragedy struck twice this season, but the players found their resolve.
"We can't lose. We have to do it," Whiteside recalls saying to her teammates. "Everything that we have gone through; we have everything we need right here and we need to do it for her, for Tina."
And so they did.
-- Chris Hansen
Rockcastle County (Mount Vernon, Ky.) senior, Sara Hammond, was crowned Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen Most Valuable Player Saturday night as she led her team to gold in the state final. Hammond recorded 15 points and 13 rebounds in the morning semifinal against Calloway County (Murray, Ky.) and then proceeded to grab another double-double that night in the title game against DuPont Manual (Louisville, Ky.) with 26 points and 11 boards. The Lady Rockets went 33-0 against Kentucky schools this year. ... Sophomore forward, Carolyn Gallagher of Archbishop Molloy (Briarwood , N.Y.), scored a career-high 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds as she led Molloy to the CHSAA Class A finals. ... Shacobia Barbee, Riverdale's (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) star junior forward, was awarded Miss Basketball for Tennessee Class AAA. ... Jasmine Johnson, the 5-foot-11 senior forward for Canyon Springs (Moreno Valley, Calif.) scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Cougars' 63-53 upset of last week's No. 3 ranked team, Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.), and thus ending the Wildcats' season. Canyon Springs will look to knock off another powerhouse on Saturday in the regional final against top-ranked Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.).
-- Rebecca Gray and Chris Hansen
Records are through March 14, 2011 games, where reported.
* denotes a team's season has ended.
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ESPN HOOPGURLZ HS RANKINGS PANEL
Lisa Bodine is a national evaluator for ESPN HoopGurlz. A native of Queens, N.Y., she began her coaching career in 1993 with the NY Gazelles, has coached with D.C.-based Team Unique, and in 2009 she was named DAC Co-Coach of the Year after leading Wakefield Country Day School in Flint Hill, Va., to its first-ever conference title. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Gray is an intern for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously wrote a column for the website about her experiences as a freshman on basketball scholarship at the University of North Carolina. She transferred to and played at Kentucky and now plays basketball and golf at Union College. A 5-foot-10, sharp-shooting guard out of Georgetown, Ky., Gray was named Miss Basketball in the state of Kentucky after averaging 25.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 4.8 assists during her senior season at Scott County High School. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.