Sophomore Corriana Evans scored 26 points to lift No. 3-state ranked Spalding past No. 4-ranked Luella 63-56 Thursday as the Lady Jags advanced to the Elite 8 round of the Class AAAA state playoffs for the second season in a row, matching the deepest postseason run in school history originally set in 2010.
Spalding (25-2) now looks to break new ground and reach the Final Four when it hosts No. 6-state ranked Madison County (22-6) 6 p.m., Tuesday in the Elite 8.
Madison County advanced by knocking off No. 5-state ranked Northwest Whitfield (25-4) by a score of 59-46 on Wednesday.
The final score at Spalding High on Thursday was not indicative of how physical the game was throughout and how close the game was down the stretch.
Spalding — which led 21-12 at the end of the first quarter, 40-23 at the half and 51-39 going into the fourth quarter — could only watch as the Lady Lions cut its lead to four, 58-54, on a pair of free throws by Kamya Hollingshed with 1:34 left to play and 60-56 on a basket by Imani McNeal with :42 left.
Spalding, however, pulled away on a free throw by Kirah Milner with :39.9 left before blocking a shot by Luella and delivering the coup de grace on a layup by senior Kiana Banks on their next trip down the floor to go up 63-56 with :26.8 remaining.
Luella turned the ball over on its last trip down the court as its season came to an end.
It was evident from early in the game that the officials were going to be quick to whistle both teams for fouls as Spalding had three players with two fouls each before the first quarter came to an end.
“I had to tell them to keep their poise and be smart,” Spalding head coach Tykira Gilbert said. “You can’t go in reaching, knowing with the tempo of the game they’re going to call the foul.”
The tight defense, however, paid off.
Luella, which was averaging 65.8 points per game, made only one field goal in the first quarter, the rest of their points coming off free throws.
By game’s end Spalding had one player who fouled out and two others with four fouls each, while Luella had two players who fouled out and two others with four fouls each.
Aniaya Jester and Banks, with 10 points each, and Kayla Milner, with 8 points, rounded out Spalding’s top scorers. Keely Brown scored 19 points, Hollingshed 14 and Zaria Bankston 10 to lead the Lady Lions.
Spalding, which also had several unforced turnovers down the stretch, also shot 9 of 27 (33 percent) from the free throw line while Luella shot 21 of 31 (68 percent) from the free throw line.
“I don’t ever question their effort,” Gilbert said of her team, “it’s just the little things, like hitting free throws, taking care of the ball and being smart.”