Before the basketball season began last fall, Athens Academy girls head coach Brian Olson and his staff met with the lone senior on his team, Meg Williams.
They wanted to know what type of goals Williams wanted the team to achieve this season. She responded by saying she wanted to leave Athens Academy as the reigning Region 8-A-Private champion.
On Tuesday, Williams and the Lady Spartans accomplished that goal, topping Tallulah Falls 45-35.
It marked the program’s first region title since 2001.
“It feels good because in my freshman year, I was in the region championship and we lost by 10,” Williams said. “So, it's great to come back my last year of high school and kind of do the same thing. It's a nice little circle-back. ... The hard work has truly paid off. We said from the start we would be in the region championship no matter what.”
The team that beat Williams for the region title her freshman year was Prince Avenue. Ironically, the Lady Spartans beat Prince Avenue last Friday in the semifinal round to qualify for the region championship game.
The title match brought together the top two teams in the region.
Both Athens Academy and Tallulah Falls had one region loss during the regular season – against each other – and Olson along with Tallulah Falls head coach Brandy Corbett was recently named the region’s co-coach of the year.
Tuesday’s game lived up to expectations. The teams traded blows throughout the contest. Athens Academy led 16-14 through the first quarter thanks largely to two 3-pointers by Williams and a couple of post-ups in the paint by Jaila Salley-Barnett.
The Lady Spartans clung to a 23-19 halftime edge. Things remained close during the third quarter.
Madeline Ransom sank a layup to beat the third-quarter buzzer and give Athens Academy a 34-31 lead.
Adair Marvel scored on a layup to make it 36-31 less than two minutes into the fourth, forcing a timeout by Tallulah Falls.
Athens Academy slowed down its offense over the last four minutes of the game. Ransom made a free throw to extend the lead. Meredith Reynolds sank two foul shots of her own to increase the lead to 41-31 with 2:04 to play.
Tallulah Falls fought back but Williams sank a free throw with 1:02 left, making it a 44-33 game in the process.
The Lady Indians were in foul mode for most of the fourth quarter and Athens Academy iced the game at the charity stripe.
Marvel said the Lady Spartans powered through a contentious game by leaning on each other.
“We give it our all and we just know that our teammates have us,” Marvel said. “If we can't keep up with them, we know that our teammates are there to help us.”
The free throw shooting clinched the game at the end, but the Lady Spartans’ offense thrived at various points.
Williams’ early 3-pointers set the tone for outside shooting success. Marvel nailed a couple of 3-pointers herself later in the game.
The perimeter shooting success was attributed to an increased focus on outside shots.
“Recently, we've been doing a lot more shooting drills and getting more comfortable with the ball and finding the open person,” Williams said. “Being able to do that [Tuesday] really paid off.”
In the end, the Lady Spartans got to hoist a championship trophy for the first time in 20 years.
“It feels great,” Salley-Barnett said. “We worked hard for it as a team. Every single one of these girls did their part. We deserve it. We worked for it.”
Athens Academy finished the regular season by playing Tallulah Falls and Prince Avenue ahead of the region tournament.
Olson said those more recent experiences had his team prepared for the battles last week.
“For us, being able to play really tough games down the stretch, I think, prepared us,” Olson said. “We talked about how that Prince Avenue game would be not necessarily the more difficult game but that it prepared us for the physicality and that [Tuesday's] game would be more about the mental toughness. It couldn't have set up better. Would I have chosen that road? No. But there was definitely a benefit to playing those games.”
By winning the region title, the Lady Spartans earned a 1-seed and home court advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
They did not know their first-round opponent as of press time. Regardless of who they are pitted against, Olson said Tuesday that he wanted his players to savor the region championship.
“We don't really have any other thought right now except for they need to own this one, they need to feel this one, and I want them to celebrate this one,” he said. “I want them to have a day or two celebrating this.”