By TONY STINNETT, Courier Sports Editor
SPARTA - District 8-AA girls basketball has produced some of the Tennessee's best teams throughout the years so winning its postseason tournament is never an easy feat.
Perhaps that is why players at Cannon County (30-3), which moved up to No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Top 10 poll, were ecstatic after they overcame a 10-point first-half lead to turn back nemesis Livingston Academy 56-54 in the 8-AA championship game at White County Monday night.
It marked the first time since 1991-92 – a span of 22 seasons – that the Lionettes have won the postseason event.
“It meant a lot to us to win this tournament,” said Middle Tennessee signee Abbey Sissom, who scored a game-high 19 points and hit the game winner with 13 seconds remaining. She also surpassed the 2,500-point mark for her career in the game. “This tournament is so tough because there are always four good teams in the semifinals and they are all well coached. We wanted this win.”
It was a team win in every sense of the word.
In addition to Sissom’s 19, Madison Walkup poured in 14 of her 16 in the decisive second half. Rebekah Faulkner added seven, Macy Clements, Erin McReynolds and Kendra Maynard scored four each and Kelli Davis netted two. Every point was critical in a two-point title win.
So was every possession. Every rebound. Every steal.
Every play mattered in the epic title game between two perennial powers.
“We just played,” Walkup said. “We play as a team, and I think that showed tonight. Our team really showed up. We were not going to be denied.”
Cannon County placed four players on the All-Tournament team, including Most Valuable Player Sissom who scored a tournament-high 46 points against Smith County in the semifinals. Clements, Faulkner and Walkup also turned in all-tournament performances during Cannon County’s three victories in the tourney.
Although they didn’t earn all-tournament accolades, reserves Davis, Maynard and Autumn King were also big time for the Lionettes. In fact, King was huge in the second half when Faulkner picked up her fourth foul and was subjected to the bench.
As good as the girls were all week, they were big time when it mattered most.
“I’m so proud of our team,” Lionettes Head Coach Michael Dodgen said. “These girls never quit. We played a great team tonight and they had a great plan but our girls were determined and I believe that showed in the way they attacked it in the second half.”
Trailing 33-25 at intermission, Cannon County stormed out of locker room and put a stunning 15-0 run on the Lady Wildcats.
“We were determined coming out in the second half,” Clements said. “We knew we had it in us. We just turned it on and started doing what we do.”
Before the Lady Wildcats knew what had hit them, they were buried under an avalanche of Lionettes’ baskets produced by suffocating full-court defense and outstanding offensive execution.
Walkup’s three-point play with 3:32 remaining in the third quarter capped the 15-0 run and turned an eight-point deficit into a 40-33 advantage.
“It just fires me up when we are all playing well,” Walkup said. “We were playing great defense, turning them over and converting on the offensive end. We just played basketball.”
Cannon County’s seven-point lead dwindled in the fourth quarter and the Lady Wildcats eventually tied the game, 49-49, with 2:57 remaining to set the stage for a vigorous final finish.
Walkup came up with a steal with 2::57 remaining and was fouled on the offensive end. She connected on 1-of-2 attempts as Cannon County regained the lead, 50-49.
Livingston Academy answered to take its first lead since the third quarter, 51-50, but McReynolds produced a dazzling play that gave the Lionettes the lead. McReynolds drove from the right wing, penetrated the lane and made a fantastic finish at the rim to put the Lionettes back in front, 52-51 with 56 seconds remaining.
After Kendall Robbins misfired for Livingston Academy, Walkup finished on the offensive end to push the lead to 54-51 with 36 ticks on the clock.
Livingston Academy (21-11) had won 11 straight and it tried to keep the streak going when Rachael Reeder buried a 3-pointer with 23 seconds remaining to tie the game, 54-54; however, Sissom – a Class AA Miss Basketball Finalist – stormed down the court, drove the lane and converted a tough, one-handed driving layup with 13 seconds remaining to give Cannon County a 56-54 lead.
Reeder got an open look at the potential game-winning shot; however, her trey attempt from the left wing was off the mark and Cannon County held on for the win.