It was quite an anniversary for the Clarke Central girls basketball team Wednesday.
Addie McNeely hit two huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and second-seeded Clarke Central defeated top seed Salem 38-35 in the Region 8-AAAAA championship game at Loganville High School.
The victory not only signified Clarke’s first region title since the 2010-2011 team defeated Flowery Branch in the Region 8-AAAA final exactly three years ago to the day on February 19, 2011, but it avenged a loss to the Seminoles in last year’s league championshp game and put an end to Salem’s nearly-three month-long 21-game winning streak.
Clarke Central (18-4) will host the No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAAAA in the first round of this weekend’s Class AAAAA State Tournament, while Salem (23-3), which suffered its first defeat since November 23 against Columbia, entertains the league’s No. 3 seed.
Salem had gotten to within three points on a pair of free throws by Taylor King with 4:48 to play in the game. After a Clarke free throw, McNeely, who came into the fourth without a point, calmly knocked down a three to push the Gladiators’ lead out to 31-24.
Ayanna Mitchell, who following the title game was named the league’s player of the year, was nearly a one-woman show for the Seminoles in the final quarter. She had seven straight Salem points, including a lay up and free throw that cut the deficit to 35-31 with a minute to play. McNeely struck again, draining a three to make it a 38-31 game. Clarke let Salem hang around, missing the front end of a 1-and-1 on two occassions, while Mitchell, who finished with a game-high 16 points, had two more baskets, the last of which made it 38-35 with five seconds to go.
Salem struggled mightily in the opening half, yet found themselves trailing by just six at halftime.
The Seminoles got early put backs from Jennifer Tindi and Mitchell and a jumper by King at the 3:19 mark of the opening quarter, but that was the final field goal of the half for the defending champions. While the Seminoles scored just three more points before the half - on a combined 3 of 6 effort from the free throw line - and went the final 11:19 of the half without a basket, Clarke got 3-pointers from Tyra Thompson, Jazmin Bell and Fredricka Sheets to go into the half-time locker room up 17-11.
Tindi finally broke the scoreless spell with a lay up at the 5:45 mark of the third, which got the Seminoles to within 19-13.
Salem point guard Shay Tarver, who suffered a left ankle injury in the quarterfinal win over Heritage and didn’t play in the semifinals against Loganville, checked in to the game for the first time and made an immediate impact, draining a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 38 seconds left in the third that got Salem to within 23-18 heading into the final period.
Markia Lester, who along with McNeely and Jasmin Bell were named to the all-region team, paced Clarke with 12 points. King and Tarver joined Mitchell on the all-league team, while Salem coach Rochone Dilligard was named the league’s coach of the year.
The Salem boys never trailed and overwhelmed Gainesville 67-50 in the third-place game of the Region 8-AAAAA Tournament earlier in the night.
Salem (9-19), which had already qualified for the state playoffs for a school-record fourth straight season with its quarterfinal victory over Heritage, bounced back from a disappointing loss to Apalachee in Tuesday’s semifinals.
In a rematch of last season’s region championship game, the No. 7 seed Seminoles did it with defense - forcing 19 Gainesville turnovers - and a balanced scoring effort that saw five players score at least seven points, led by Austin Samuel (14 points) and Demyon Greenwood (10 points and seven rebounds).
It was a 14-point halftime lead for Salem, and a 41-29 advantage three minutes into the third before the Conyers school pulled away.
Starting with a Quintavius Byrd 3-pointer and including baskets from six different players, Salem had an 18-4 spurt that made it a 59-33 game with 30 seconds to go in the period.
Samuel was effective at the close of each of the first two quarters, allowing Salem to build a double-digit cushion it wouldn’t relinquish.
In the first, the junior wing hit a jumper and a 3-pointer, which put the Seminoles up 16-4 at the 3 1/2-minute mark. Gainesville got as close as 25-17 in the second on a pair of free throws from Luke Maddox (team-high 13 points), but Salem scored 12 of the last 18 points of the half, five of which came from Samuel, and led 37-23 at the break.
Salem got off to a fast start, jumping out to a 10-0 lead two minutes into the game. Kristopher Bridgeman converted a nice runner in the lane for two of his eight points, Samuel had a dunk and Greenwood scored half of his eight first-half points during the game-opening spurt.
It took fifth-seeded Gainesville 2 1/2 minutes to score its first basket, getting Rodney Lackey’s bucket with 5:26 to go in the first. Lackey added a runner late in the opening quarter, part of a nine-point first half for the guard, that pulled the Red Elephants to within 18-8 heading into the second.
Salem will visit the Region 6-AAAAA runner-up in this weekend’s first round of the Class AAAAA state tournament, while Gainesville will be hoping to pull the upset against the region 6 champion.
“The team we had tonight was the team we envisioned at the beginning of the year,” Salem boys coach Noah Harrell said before stating the Wednesday win was his team’s finest performance of the season. “The good thing is that we’re playing our best ball going into the state tournament.”
“It’s just great for the school and the program in general, it shows the level of consistent excellence,” said Salem Athletic Director Darren Wilkins. “Both programs now are on very solid ground. I’d like to congratulate both coaches on the season’s they’ve had.”