By Robert Haddocks
Miller Grove overcame a sluggish first half and came out playing like the defending state champions before coasting to a 67-49 victory over Pope in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
The Wolverines turned up the defensive pressure and began working the ball inside to blow open what was a tight game. Pope trailed by only three, 23-20, late in the second period, but Miller Grove went a 21-5 run, led by their inside game of Katie Hunt and Klarissa Weaver and the all-around play of Tashi Thompson, who paced the Wolverines with 17 points. With a decided height advantage, Miller Grove continually drove to the hoop and pounded the offensive glass. Pope’s Kierra Henry kept Pope in the game with 28 points, including six 3-pointers.
Miller Grove (23-5) will play the winner of Alatoona-Flowery Branch on Friday.
“We’re not where we need to be,” Miller Grove coach Renee Breedlove said. “We can’t give up 28 points to a single player. In the first half we weren’t doing what we need to do. But they picked up the defensive intensity, we went to the high-low game and pulled away.”
Miller Grove’s press did force five first-quarter turnovers, but the Wolverines led by just three, 14-11 at the end of the period. Last year’s title team had a motto, “32 minutes of The Grove,” a testament to their relentless defensive pressure. “We’re giving 20, 24 minutes,” Breedlove said. “We can’t afford to turn it on and off like that. I’m not satisfied with what happened on defense. We could’ve put them out a lot earlier than we did.”
But the effort was there in spurts and the Wolverines had several contributors. Early in the second period, sophomore Sarai Blissett swatted a Pope shot in the lane, sprinted downcourt and was fed for layup. She then hustled back to break up a Pope pass under the basket. Chrystal Ezechukwu scored three buckets underneath and made a steal. Weaver and Aniefiok Udofia worked the high-low game with deft passes inside. “Katie (Hunt) ran the offense, Tasha made some threes and we were able to get into the high-low because of that,” Breedlove said.
Miller Grove led 27-20 at intermission and Pope (16-10) never got closer the rest of the way.
Thompson said the team was “dragging” in the first half but knew that to get it together. “We had to wake up,” said Thompson, one of eight seniors. “Defense is our motto; that’s what we live by. Our offense starts with defense. “
Despite not being satisfied with the win, Breedlove believes this team, which lost only one player from last year, will return to the finals. “Our plan is to be in Macon on March 8th,” she said. “If the kids start playing D the way I know they can, we’ll be there March 8th.”