How do you prepare for a third meeting against a team that had defeated you by more than 50 points on the previous two occasions?
“We approached it with confidence,” said Atlee girls basketball coach Michael Rawlings. “I challenged my girls to just play, and stand up to the challenge before them.”
Though they gave it their all, Highland Springs was simply bigger, stronger, and faster. With Delaware State commit Bri Justice deftly running the point and junior Najai Pollard scoring at will inside, Highland Springs built a 34-point lead by halftime en route to defeating the Raiders 89-33 in the 5A South Region Semifinal Friday night at Hermitage High School. The Raiders fell one win short of the State 5A Girls Basketball Tournament.
“We’ve been preparing for Highland Springs since the rout early in the season,” Rawlings said, referring to a 96-38 loss in December that, at the time, dropped Atlee to 0-3. “Sadly, I think we still have to get over a mental hurdle. Part of my game plan for this year was letting the girls know next year we’ll be on par with them. Justice was a 40-point factor, and she’ll be gone.”
Justice led Highland Springs (23-1) with 16 points, but was even more of a factor with crisp, sometimes no-look passes, finding Pollard (14 points) and Cam Gaitling (10 points) inside wide open for baskets.
Ashley Weaver did her best to keep the Raiders in it early, scoring nine of Atlee’s first 12 points, finishing with 14. In her final game, Cierra Shelton was held to 10 points, an obvious defensive priority in the Springers’ game plan. The Raiders made 10 field goals in the game, while the Springers made 37.
The game was effectively put away with an 11-0 Highland Springs run to start the second quarter, extending a 24-12 lead to a 23-point bulge.
It was a difficult end to one of the best seasons the team has enjoyed since their State Group AAA Championship season of 2002-03. The Raiders, after the aforementioned 0-3 start, won 15 of their last 19 games. They lost to Glen Allen twice, the Springers three times, and avenged their first loss of the year to Hermitage when they eliminated the Panthers from the postseason in the Conference 11 Tournament.
But perhaps their biggest win, even more than their 76-47 rout at Patrick Henry Feb. 3, was their final win, when the Raiders earned their third shot at Highland Springs by handing Prince George their only loss of the season in the 5A South Regional Quarterfinals, 54-52.
The Royals, led by Wake Forest recruit Ariel Stephenson, entered the game 22-0, winners of Conference 12. But Rawlings had a plan for his Raiders to
pull off the shocker.
“I told the team that a one-person team can’t beat us. We can control one player if she is the team’s primary, secondary, and tertiary option,” Rawlings explained.
Atlee played almost a perfect first half, in no way showing it wanted a low-scoring affair by taking a 35-21 lead to intermission. But the Royals punched back and the second half saw Atlee struggle and fight to hold on for the win.
“We were below par (in the second half), with turnovers, and I think the pressure of the moment got to the girls a little,” Rawlings said. “Stephenson is a great scorer, but I think we controlled her as well as could be done.”
Stephenson had a chance to tie the game at the free throw line, but missed one of two to keep the Atlee lead at 53-52 with 6.3 seconds left. The Raiders were fouled, made one of two shots, giving Stephenson a prayer at the buzzer. It wasn’t answered.
“My nerves were more on edge while we were shooting free throws versus Stephenson,” Rawlings opined. “Neither Ashley (Weaver) nor Jamari (Blackwell) had been in game-ending free throw situations. I didn’t want them to fail.”
Atlee finishes 2013-14 with a 15-7 record, and they’ll lose their primary scorer, Shelton, plus utility player Jayme Matthews to graduation. How does Rawlings plan to help the team take the next step?
“Our top priorities are core strength, everyone understanding their roles, and raising their average ability. That is what I ask of each player each day. Give me what you can do consistently,” he said. “Our primary goal, most importantly, is minimize turnovers!”
If the Raiders can find a new top shooting option, develop a second, and overcome their mental and physical shortcomings when facing a full-court press defense, Atlee could be on the cusp of a prolonged renaissance in girls basketball.