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DHS split season series, prepare for playoffs

If there was any doubt before, there is none now: the Demopolis Lady Tigers are peaking at the exact right time.

The state’s seventh-ranked 4A girls team rolled to its eighth straight win last Friday night, defeating rival Greensboro 43-30 in Greensboro. The Lady Raiders had narrowly taken the last two meetings in the season series, winning in Demopolis by three Dec. 29 and by two Jan. 10, but this time 10 fourth-quarter points from sophomore point guard Jasmine Simmons helped Demopolis pull away and even the 2006 series at two wins each.

“This was a big ball game,” said Demopolis head coach Tony Pittman. “The whole week, we’d talked about treating it like a playoff game. They were real focused and ready to play.”

The Greensboro game provided an excellent example of two things Pittman says his team has dramatically improved on during their recent surge. One is getting increased production from the Lady Tigers’ bench and role players, as Simmons’ 10 points and reserve forward Kierra Plaskett’s 10 tied for highest on the team. (They were followed by Shawnese Armstead’s 8, Katerria Johnson’s 7, Krystal Walker’s 4, and Kelli Johnson’s 4).

“The last four or five games we’ve done an excellent job of sharing the basketball,” Pittman says. “Teams are trying to limit the touches of Shawnese and Katerria. They want our other players to beat them. I can’t blame them … that’s what I’d do if I was coaching against us. It’s no secret. But the other girls have stepped up their scoring and the bench has really come on.”

The other improvement has come in crunch time. In early-season losses to Thomasville, Sunshine, and the Lady Raiders, Pittman was unhappy with how his team responded in the fourth quarter of tight games. But the team has been much steadier in recent weeks, and Friday withstood an early fourth-quarter Greensboro run to actually increase their 26-20 lead entering the period to the 13-point final margin.

“We feel like those [close] games have prepared us for our area tournament,” Pittman says. “We’ve been in several close games and recently we’ve been able to keep our composure and earn a victory.”

The Greensboro game concluded the Lady Tigers’ regular season with a 17-4 overall record as they head into this weekend’s 4A Area 5 tournament as top seed and host. They open with fourth-seeded Livingston Thursday at 8 p.m. in Demopolis.

The Lady Tigers have not been as dominant in Area 5 in 2006 as they were in 2005, having lost their first meeting with Thomasville and playing a down-to-the-wire thriller against Greene County. But after the Greensboro game Pittman feels his team has momentum and will not take anyone they face lightly.

“It’s the team that is most focused, that wants it the most that’s going to win,” he says. “There’s something about them at this time of the season. They’ve been there and they know what it takes. We’re re-focused, we’re going back to work and getting ready to hopefully make another run at this thing.”

The keys for Demopolis, Pittman says, are to continue playing solid defense (“Our goal is to hold our opponents under 30 points for the game. In girls’ basketball, if you can do that, you have a good opportunity to win the game,” he says) and to continue playing unselfishly on the offensive end.

If the Tigers do continue their winning streak through the area tournament and possibly into a third consecutive Final Four appearance, they can look back at a team meeting held not long after the second Greensboro loss. At that time Pittman charged his four seniors–off-guard Armstead, power forward Katerria Johnson, center Kelli Johnson, and forward Krystal Walker– with getting Demopolis back to playing championship basketball. He made all four members of the starting lineup, and the team hasn’t looked back.

“I said, if it’s going to be done, you’re the ones who will have to do it. That’s the way it should be,” Pittman says. “It’s taken off from that point. We’re having fun now. Even in a close ball game, you can see them smiling and having fun out there. And that’s what you want at this stage.”

And that stage, of course, is the most important one of all.

“It’s tournament time,” Pittman says. “There’s a different focus. There things this team wants to accomplish. We don’t want to put our uniforms up yet.”