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3 straight to state

By Bill Sorrell
Photos by Kevin Lewter
After Houston pulled away to defeat Dyer County 64-47 in a Sub-State game on Saturday to earn a berth in the Class AAA state tournament, a reporter for the Dyersburg State-Gazette said it was the tamest celebration he had seen from a team that had just punched its ticket to Murfreesboro.
Much of the celebration was in the locker room and no player had a been there-done that attitude.
“It’s definitely something that I don’t take for granted at all. It’s definitely a blessing to be able to go back three times in a row,” said Houston guard Jayla Hemingway, who scored a game-high 19 points.
To finish her high school career in the state tournament is “pretty exciting,” said Houston guard Madison Griggs, who is on a mission. “We’ve got to finish out the finals this year.”
Houston lost to Riverdale in the state championship in 2018, taking home the Silver Ball.
“We get another chance to get that Gold Ball. We have been one step closer each year and I hope we can get one step farther than we were last year,” said Hemingway.
The Lady Mustangs toppled Bradley Central last year in the semifinals after winning the school’s first state tournament game, in the quarterfinals against Clarksville in 2017.
Houston (29-2) was scheduled to play Mt. Juliet (27-6) at 6 p.m. Wednesday after the Arlington (27-7) v. Riverdale (30-1) matchup at 4:30 p.m.
A win by Houston and Arlington will set up an all-Shelby County contest at 1:15 p.m. Friday. The state championship is at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.
“You can’t ever take this for granted. Every year is different. There was no guarantee at the beginning that this would be some sort of easy road and it wasn’t so it is extremely gratifying. We are thrilled. We want to get up there and make another run,” said Houston head coach Ben Moore.
The win over Dyer County was Houston’s 46th straight at home over three seasons. Houston seniors have never lost a home nor district game.
Defeating Whitehaven in the Region 8-AAA title game last week for their third straight region championship, the Lady Mustangs won the region semifinals over Central after eliminating East in the first round.
“We have great tradition. I am proud of these kids. They have laid the foundation for what basketball can be here. They worked really hard. They are coachable, want to win and are super competitive,” said Moore. “These kids have built a great legacy and hopefully we can add to it.”
Winning their 15th straight this season, the Lady Mustangs (112-15 over four seasons) needed a fourth quarter rally to pull away from the District 13 regular season and tournament champion Lady Choctaws (23-9).
With a hot third quarter, Dyer County outscored Houston 16-6 and then pulled within 46-43 on a 3-pointer by Katelyn Anderson with 5:47 left to play.
A clutch basket by Melisa Carter and Hemingway’s steal that followed her layup gave Houston a 52-43 lead. Griggs’ trey and Carter’s field goal put Houston up 57-44 before Alexis Akins scored the Lady Choctaws’ last points of the season, a 3-pointer, with 1:51 left.
Two layups by Hemingway sandwiched free throws by Griggs for another 15-point lead, 62-47. Desiree Wells sank two free throws for the final home points of the season.
Moore said he didn’t feel safe until it was “0:00 on the clock. That was hairy, especially in the third quarter. They got hot. We knew it would be a tough game. You don’t get to Sub-State and play an easy game. They are always tough. Dyer County is a good team and well coached with a lot of pride. They came in and did what we thought they would do. They really wore us out.”
All week Moore had been telling his team that a third trip to state was not a foregone conclusion.
“I have no doubt in their minds they would assume they would win tonight. That is probably one reason we struggled. There was no guarantee at the beginning (of the year) that this would be some sort of easy road and it wasn’t. We have done certain things to get to this point. You have to continue to do those things. We cant get away from it. Tonight we kind of got away from it. We’ll have to get back to what works next week.”
Hemingway, who will have a completely different game in the 2019-20 season as a freshman at Mississippi State, expected a test from Dyer County.
“Sub-State games are always very difficult to win. There is a lot on the line. It’s probably the biggest game of the year and the next game is going to be an even bigger game than the last game,” she said.
“Last year we got all the way to the end and couldn’t finish. We have to make sure we don’t let up and always finish at the end. Don’t let up regardless of what the scoreboard says.”
The scoreboard didn’t how close the game was said
Dyer County head coach Derek McCord.
Houston's Jayla Hemingway in Choctow traffic
“It was a well played game and a lot closer than the final score. That was two good teams with some really skilled guards. They played a little better in the last four minutes that we did. It was an up and down battle. I think the fans got their money’s worth tonight. It was no blowout tonight,” said McCord, who is in his 13th year at Dyer County. He also coaches the boys team.
“I thought the kids showed a lot of resiliency battling back to cut it to three in the 5 minute mark. It shows how tough we are without our leading scorer. Our girls are toughness personafied.”
Dyer County sophomore Zoie Springer, who was averaging 24 points, tore her ACL in the Marshall County (KY) Christmas tournament.
“In the third quarter we made shots. We struggled shooting early and got in foul trouble. Had we made shots earlier we would have won the game. We had four girls in foul trouble. We had almost 25 fouls tonight. We’ve got to not foul so much,” said McCord.
Houston sank 11 of 17 free throws while Dyer County hit 4 of 9 for the game.
Houston took a 23-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. Griggs scored 6 points on two 3-pointers. Carter also scored 6 in the first and Hemingway 5.
Alea Russell and Meme Smith combined for 7 Dyer County points in the first while Brooklyn King and Gracie McVay each scored 3 in the second quarter and Anderson 4.
Destinee Wells’ 6 points and Carter’s 5 helped Houston take a 34-19 halftime lead. Rebounding and second and third opportunities got points in the first half.
Carter would finish with 16 points, Wells 12. Nakiyah Westbrook added a free throw.
Moore called Houston’s third quarter “bad. We gave up layups. They got us overextended because of how bad we were. They would get us on one side of the floor and pull us too far or not far enough then they would be able to find a shooter. They did a lot of stuff that we were not good enough to guard.”
A trey by Akins, who became the scoring leader (18 points) after Springer’s injury, cut the Houston lead to 34-24. Anderson hit a trey but Hemingway countered with a 3-pointer and Houston led 38-27. Carter gave Houston a 40-29 lead after Anderson scored. Two 3-pointers, by Akins and Smith, pulled the Lady Choctaws to within 40-35 at the end of the third quarter.
“We needed to defend the 3-point shots better. We didn’t play well on defense. We got beat on transition a couple of plays. They got hot and started making threes,” said Griggs, who finished with 16 points.
Houston’s lead climbed to 7, 42-35, when Wells opened the fourth quarter with a basket. Smith’s trey cut it to 42-38 but Hemingway made two straight layups for a 46-38 lead before Russell and Anderson, who finished with a team-high 12 points, made it a 3-point game.
“They made a bunch of smart plays that we had to make sure that we made adjustments on our defensive end,” said Hemingway of the dominant fourth quarter. “We were going to find a way to win. I wanted to make sure we didn’t get down or anything. I wanted to help my team. It was tough game. We came out kind of slow at first but we picked it up at the end.
“It was an ugly win but it was bittersweet because I know regardless of how the game went we got the W and that is all that matters.”
Griggs said, “We slowed down and played better defense and got more ball pressure. It was a rough game. I think we should have and could have played better defense and played a little harder to keep the lead bigger than it was. We could have got more rebounds and putbacks and guard the 3-point (shooters) better.”
Moore was concerned that the Lady Mustangs had a drop off defensively.
“I thought we were really good in the district and region and weren’t as good defensively tonight. I give Dyer County a lot of credit. We are going to have to be better next week. It you don’t guard it’s hard to play.”
Houston’s fourth quarter defense improved and forcing turnovers helped along with a run that Griggs helped get going with her trey.
“We are a good offensive team. We’ve got a lot of good players, a lot of good weapons,” said Moore.
Weapons against Dyer County included the core four of Hemingway, Wells, Carter, Griggs.
‘Those four carried us,” said Moore. “Melisa Carter was great. She missed some shots she normally makes but defensively she was phenomenal. I don’t think we would win without her. She was fantastic on the defensive end. Madison Griggs was solid all night and hit timely shots. Destinee Wells was steady. Give Jayla credit. She didn’t play her best first half. She picked up two fouls. She is resilient. She is a tough kid. She knew when it was time to pick it up and she did that second half. I was proud of her effort in the second half.”
McCord said that Hemingway, a Miss Basketball finalist and region tourney MVP with a 25-point average, “beat us down the floor” when she scored fourth quarter layups. “She is an SEC player. She did what Division 1 basketball playes do. She had a big fourth quarter.
“They are well coached. They are hard to box out because they are so athletic with big, strong athletes and that is one area that did us in. We didn’t turn the ball over. We worked on that all week. They are not as big as Arlington. They have very skilled guards, some of the best in the state.”
Dyer County lost to Arlington in the Region 7-AAA championship.
McCord wonders what might have been had the team not suffered injuires. Akins, a point guard, played the second half of the season with a torn ACL. She was injured around Christmas.
“At Christmas a lot of people said she is done, she is not going to come back and she is playing and had multiple double-figure games and competes against a Division 1 player like she did with a torn ACL. That is tougness. She is so good at handling the ball, shooting the ball, being a leader.
“Anderson’s back has been bothering her almost the entire season. When a girl’s back hurts so bad during a time out she can’t sit down and goes out there and plays her heart out night in and night out that is toughness. You won’t find a post player who scores inside and outside like she does. She is a great leader, blocks a lot of shots and does so many good things.
“Mary Kate Sheppard stuck it out four years. She is a great practice player, academic MVP.
“Emily Finley has an elbow injury and came off the bench and gave us great minutes. Alea Russell night in and night out and Gracie McVay, all these girls give up size and compete. Alea is one of the toughest girls you’ll every find taking charges all year and doing all the blue collar hard work. She will become a better scorer. She has a strong post presence.”
Russell and McVay are leading rebounders.
” Brooklyn King is our most improved player. Meme Smith comes in the second half and knocks down shots. If we have our leading scorer (Springer) it’s a different ball game,” said McCord.
Akins and Smith finished with 9 points, Russell and King 6 each, McVay 5
In his 30th year overall in coaching, McCord expressed pride in his team.
“One again our girls, as beat up and injured as we are, competes. How can you not be super proud of a team like that? To play down to the wire shows you where our program is. A lot of people didn’t think our team would compete in the district much less win it in the regular season and district tournament. Here we are in Sub-State once again and that is tradition, our culture. We have tough kids and I love every one of them. I love my job. We have great kids, great fan support.”
The boys and girls teams combined for 46 victories this season under McCord. The Choctaws were 23-6. McCord has won eight district titles with his girls teams and eight with his boys.
The Choctaws lost the state championship game to Southwind in 2012. They have been to state three times, the girls once.
McCord thinks the Lady Choctaws could have gone this sesason.
“Without the injuries I think this team could have got to state. There is not any doubt that this is a state tournament team. We are that skilled,” said McCord. “Hats off to Houston. They are a very good basketball team. It wouldn’t surprise me if they win the thing.”

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