By Maurice Patton
COLUMBIA – Joshua Bugg made sure to stress that Columbia Central’s 66-56 win Monday night over visiting Lincoln County – a victory that clinched the Lady Lions’ first Region 4-AAA Tournament berth in seven years – was not about any one person.
The fourth-year coach did admit, though, that getting Jenice Bailey – the team’s only senior – to that tournament held some particular meaning.
“She’s played so hard,” Bugg said following the District 8-AAA tourney quarterfinal win, which sends Central (18-9) into a Wednesday semifinal contest against top-seeded Coffee County. “She’s been committed to this program. She’s been a better leader. We wouldn’t be here without her.
“If there’s a kid that deserves this, it’s her.”
Bailey was no charity case, just along for the ride, though. She scored seven points in a frantic first quarter as an undersized Lady Lions squad set the tone, taking an early 10-point lead, and added a second 3-point basket in the second period to help the hosts to a 39-31 halftime lead.
“We decided we were going to push it, play good defense, get on them and never let up,” Bailey said. “We never took our foot off the gas. We stuck with the game plan. We are small. We ‘front-guarded’ (their posts), got helpside defense, got ball pressure, and we ran.
“We’ve been working for it all year, believing we could do it, and we came out and did it.”
Despite the absence of guard Janiyha Riley and forward Jalei O’Neal, both sidelined with concussions, Central was able to generate offense with its pressure defense – making Lincoln County (10-13) uncomfortable, creating turnovers and scoring in transition while forcing the Lady Falcons to play at a pace not to their liking.
“They’re a little quicker, a little more athletic. It was tough for us,” Lincoln County coach Chad Tipps said. “We’d thought they’d try to push the pace, … We knew they’d be smaller, quicker, faster. We thought they’d try to get up into us. We didn’t handle it well.
“And they shot it well. ‘32’ has always been a heck of a player. They all shot the ball with confidence. Coach Bugg did a good job getting them going, playing with energy. That’s always easier when the ball’s going in. But you’ve got to give them credit.”
Josie Parks – No. 32 – scored a game-high 27 points, hitting four of Central’s 11 3-pointers and helping keep the fifth-seeded visitors at bay any time they got close.
Her trey just before the buzzer made it an eight-point game at the break, and after a more deliberate start to the second half, she countered an Annalise Malone 3 with one that extended the lead to 44-34. From there, Lincoln County pulled back within a possession on three different occasions in the fourth quarter.
An Anaya Mulholland trey, a Mulholland layup and a Saviya Morgan runner provided answers, and a Parks 3 with 3:38 remaining provided the virtual dagger — giving the Lady Lions a 60-52 cushion that Lincoln County never overcame.
“I’m extremely proud of our players and the Columbia community,” Bugg said. “This isn’t about one player, one parent, one coach. It’s about a community that’s completely bought in, and we’ve gotten another week of basketball. I’m extremely proud of this team.”
Morgan and Bailey each added 10 points for Central – Bailey before fouling out with 3:17 left in the game. Malone finished with 19 points and Amelia Kate Richardson 12 to lead Lincoln County.
“The way we play defensively, we’re going to give up some stuff,” Bugg said. “We’ve got to tough it out. We’re not a halfcourt team (offensively). We’ve got some good plays, but we can’t run them back to back to back. But when we have eight players score, when six of them knock down 3s, and when all of them are playing hard defense, good things happen.
“Josie’s one of the best kids in our school, she’s one of the hardest workers, and she’s consistently a player you can count on.”
Columbia Central girls 66, Lincoln Co. 56
L 13 18 12 13 – 56
C 20 19 8 19 – 66
Lincoln Co. (56) – Allie Bonner 3, Maggie Paladino 9, Amelia Kate Richardson 12, Alyssa Sticker 5, Lele Stubblefield 2, Brynna Stubblefield 6, Annalise Malone 19
Columbia Central (66) – Saviya Morgan 10, Ryleigh Hamm 5, Anaya Mulholland 8, Jenice Bailey 10, Kiyanah Edwards 2, Emma Hughes 3, Josie Parks 27, Kaydence Houston 1
3-pointers – Lincoln Co. 7 (Bonner, Paladino, Richardson, Sticker, B. Stubblefield 2, Malone), Columbia Central 11 (Morgan, Hamm, Mulholland 2, Bailey 2, Hughes, Parks 4)