Monday, March 3, 2014
FLORENCE — All year, the Latta High School girls' basketball team has been unranked and unheralded.
The Vikings are more than OK with that. They've embraced the perception from others that they don't belong among the state's elite all the way to a state championship appearance after beating Hemingway 58-48 on Saturday in the Class A lower state final at Florence Civic Center.
"I told my girls we don't have a problem being underdogs," Latta coach Curtis Jackson said. "These girls have a passion for basketball. They play the game the right way. They played hard, they played smart and most of all, they played relaxed."
Indeed, it was the more veteran Tigers who appeared to play tighter down the stretch as Latta put the game away in the fourth, outscoring Hemingway 14-9. The Vikings got 23 points from TaKeria Legette and 19 from Jessica Evans to earn their way to Columbia for the first time since 2007, when coach Jeff Bley's team eventually beat Indian Land to bring the state title trophy back to the Pee Dee.
After beating Timmonsville earlier this week to reach the lower state finals, the Vikings (18-4) have beaten the past two state champions consecutively. And they did it the way they've done it all year, using pressure defense and traps to cause turnovers and get easy baskets.
Legette was admittedly "speechless" standing in front of the TV cameras after Saturday's game, but had an easy, truthful answer to what eventually led to the Vikings' victory. "Defense, defense, defense," she said. "We don't have great size," Jackson said. "We've got to run. We see the ball and we go and get it. When we gamble, we've got to get paid." The Tigers hung tough, though, until midway through the second half.
Diamond McFadden, who led Hemingway with 20 points, fouled out near the end of the third period with Latta up 43-39. McFadden was one of three Hemingway players who trapped Mallory Townsend in the corner in the backcourt near the Latta bench and got whistled for a foul, disqualifying her for the remainder of the game.
A few moments later, between periods, Hemingway coach Chakaris Thomas was called for a technical foul and Brittany Burgess made one of the two free throws to start a 7-0 spurt by the Vikings to start the fourth. Thomas said she was upset by the disparity in fouls.
Latta was called for 10, while the Tigers were whistled for 19. The Vikings shot 22 free throws to just five for the Tigers.
"Never in 18 years have I got a technical in JV or varsity," Thomas said. "I just couldn't take it anymore. In an evenly called game, we still might have not come out on top but it would have been a better played game."
Thomas also second-guessed herself for not benching McFadden after she got into early foul trouble. After McFadden picked up her fourth foul early in the third period, she sat only briefly before returning to the game.
After Burgess hit the technical shot, a jumper by Maya Wright and back-to-back steals and layups by Legette and Evans put Latta up 50-39 with 5:50 remaining. The Vikings led by as many as 12 and the Tigers (17-5) never got closer than nine. "We just didn't have that fight today," Thomas said.