• 68°

Sunshine girls to host area tourney

Last February, the Sunshine Lady Tigers came just about as close as you can possibly come to going to Birmingham.

In the regional finals against Pleasant Home, Sunshine led a low-scoring game 22-19 entering the final period. But Pleasant home scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to the Lady Tigers’ five, and Sunshine came up two points short, 29-27.

Now, Lady Tiger head coach Phillip Wagner says his team is determined to make those two points up and return to the Final Four.

“It really motivates our juniors and seniors, to get a chance to go back and play a better game than we did in the final,” he says. “We played well enough to win, but we didn’t play as well as we could.”

If Sunshine continues to play the way they have in romping through Class 1A Area 8, they may just get that chance. The Lady Tigers rolled to an undefeated 8-0 record, earning them the right to host the area tournament, which gets underway this coming Monday. But despite the perfect record and ease with which Sunshine handled their opponents during the regular season, neither Wagner nor his team are taking anything for granted.

“You’ve got Carrolton, they’ve got a good team. Akron has a good team, ACA has a good team,” he says. “On any given night, those teams are capable of beating us.”

But one thing Sunshine knows it will be able to rely on is their home-court advantage. Wagner admits that the Lady Tigers have played much better in their own gym than on the road, with the biggest example Sunshine’s 43-41 home upset of Demopolis, the current seventh-ranked team in 4A.

“We have a lot of young players, so we naturally play better at home,” he says. “It means a lot to us to be playing the area tournament at home. The players parents and grandparents can come out and see them … it helps our girls a lot.”

Those young players will have to produce if Sunshine to make a second serious run at the Final Four, where Wagner took the Lady Tigers in 1999 and 2000 and won the state title in ’99. Sunshine starts a pair of eighth-graders, guard Shafontaye Myers and forward JohnQuesha Childs. Sophomore Jessica Collins and freshman Shanquila Carter are also important members of the Lady Tiger rotation.

Junior forward Cortney Lathan also has a starting role. But the heart of the Sunshine team are the two seniors, guard Francesca Bates and forward Sherrena Carter. Wagner says the seniors are especially motivated to “redeem themselves” after falling just short last season.

“Those young ladies are two exceptional players,” he says.

But before they can worry about playing better in Mobile, they’ll have to play well in Newbern. Wagner says if his team can stay focused on the defensive end, they can avoid being upset next week.

“We have to play good defense. With Myers and Bates, we can score. But to win championships, you have to base yourself on good defense,” he says. “As long as you keep your opponent to a minimum of points, you’ll have a chance to win the game.”

Sunshine will play the winner of Monday’s Carrolton-John Essex game Thursday night.