A dream deferred

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Demopolis Lady Tigers’ entire season had been building towards the third quarter of their tied Southwest Regional final against UMS-Wright. Unfortunately, those eight minutes were all it took for that season to come apart.

Inspirational senior guard Shawnese Armstead fouled out with 1:59 left in the quarter and UMS capitalized by outscoring Demopolis 17-5 in the period, taking a 30-18 lead into the fourth quarter and prevailing 46-34. The loss snapped the seventh-ranked Lady Tigers’ winning streak at 13 games and denied Demopolis its third straight trip to the 4A Final Four.

“At halftime, I wrote on the blackboard, that the first five minutes of the third quarter would decide the game,” Demopolis head coach Tony Pittman said afterwards. “You look back at that time, and we were outscored 8-0. We just didn’t execute. We didn’t do anything right.”

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Demopolis could have headed into the halftime locker room with a lead, but Shay Smith’s open layup attempt at the second quarter buzzer rolled off the rim and left the defensive struggle knotted at 13. That missed opportunity–one of a series of errant layups and

missed open shots that seemed to frustrate the Lady Tigers–appeared to give No. 6 UMS the momentum coming out of the locker room.

Demopolis worked the ball inside to start the half, but neither Katerria nor Kelli Johnson could find the range. DHS would go on to miss four shots and commit seven turnovers on their first 10 possessions of the half, giving the Lady Bulldogs the opportunity to mount a 10-0 run and build a 23-13 lead. A three-pointer by Jasmine Simmons at the 3:04 mark of the quarter stopped the bleeding, and after a Katerria Johnson basket less than a minute later Demopolis was within five, 23-18.

But Armstead would leave the game on UMS’ next possession. The senior picked up her fourth foul in a loose ball scramble near midcourt, and only six seconds later–with a substitute waiting to check in at the scorer’s table–Armstead attempted to draw a charge on Lady Bulldog leading scorer Angela Goncalves. A blocking foul was called instead and the Goncalves shot fell through for a three-point play. The twin blows of seeing their senior leader head to the bench as Goncalves pushed the lead back to eight was, in the end, too much for the Lady Tigers to recover from.

“I’m over there screaming ‘No, no, no,” but that’s Shawnese, She’s going to play the same way whether she’s got three fouls, four fouls, or one foul,” Pittman said. “It’s unfortunate we lost her when we did. If we’d had her in the fourth quarter, maybe it would have been a different ball game. But it’s part of the game.”

Shaken, Demopolis allowed UMS to finish the quarter on a 7-0 spurt that put the Lady Bulldogs up 12, 30-18, headed to the final period. With no Armstead and needing to make up a big deficit, Pittman went with a smaller, quicker, younger lineup designed to press the Lady Bulldogs and score quickly.

The strategy paid some dividends in the middle of the quarter, as the Lady Tigers forced three consecutive UMS turnovers and got three consecutive baskets from freshmen Loreal Moore and Valissa Sams to cut the UMS lead to eight, 36-28, with 3:07 to play. The little-used Moore hit four shots in the quarter, including a three-pointer, to finish as Demopolis’ unlikely high scorer with nine points.

Despite Moore’s efforts, after a Simmons three-pointer rattled out with 2:37 to play there was little Demopolis could do. The Lady Bulldogs hit 10 of 15 free throws down the stretch and Goncalves’ jumper with 1:21 to play restored the UMS lead to 14, 44-30, before claiming a final margin of 12.

UMS head coach Lindsey Weems said she felt like Armstead’s departure was the key point in the game.

“She’s a great player, and that really took away one of their go-to players down the stretch,” she said. “Our girls did a great job playing together and playing hard for 32 minutes. We knew if we took care of the ball, good things would happen.”

UMS owned big statistical advantages both in rebounding, 38 boards to 23, and at the free throw line, where the Lady Bulldogs finished 21-of-28 to Demopolis’ 5-of-10.

Moore’s 9 points led Demopolis, followed by Katerria Johnson’s 8, Armstead’s 7, Simmons’ 7, Sams’ 2, and Alecia Arnold’s 1. Armstead and Katerria Johnson were named to the All-Tournament team ,along with Goncalves, the Tournament MVP after scoring a game-high 14 points in the final, and Greensboro’s Shondrille Tabb.

Pittman admitted to being disappointed in the play of starting seniors Krystal Walker and Kelli Johnson, neither of which scored a point or grabbed a rebound in 34 total minutes of playing time. But he remained proud of the careers of his four departing seniors–Armstead, Walker, and Katerria and Kelli Johnson–who helped power the program to four Regionals appearances, back-to-back Final Four berths, and an appearance in the 2004 4A championship game.

“This was a very, very successful class,” he said. “Three of the four have started for me since they were freshmen. They’ve won a lot of individual honors, and they’ve accomplished a lot as a group.”