Thanks to a combined 29 points and 24 rebounds from post players Kailey Echols and Justice Looney, the defending Northeast Regional champions got through a 47-44 victory over Collinsville in Tuesday’s regional semifinals in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Matthews Coliseum.
“We’ve been beat up, but they’re fighters,” Ragland coach Rush Rutledge said. “They’re winners, too.”
Indeed, Ragland made the Final 48 a year ago, and some of the same girls play for the school’s back-to-back, state-championship softball team.
They called on every bit of their experience Tuesday and won a berth in Friday’s 6:20 p.m. final against Gaston, which beat Woodville on Tuesday.
Echols scored 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds. Looney ripped down 17 rebounds and scored 10 points to go with five assists.
They combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds in the second half as Ragland fought back from a 20-17 halftime deficit.
Ragland (22-10) went without Church, an all-tournament performer during the Purple Devils’ run to the regional title a year ago. She’s been out since Dec. 9 with a torn anterior crucial ligament in her left knee.
Oliver returned from a medial collateral ligament injury Tuesday and scored two points, including the free throws that provided the final margin with 1:25 to play.
But Ragland had to survive drama after Collinsville’s Kristen Ford stole the ball from Looney with 30 seconds left. The ensuing possession saw the Panthers’ Kiana Ford, Brittney Tidmore and Christy Cox miss 3-point attempts.
Collinsville had one more chance when Kiana Ford rebounded Emileah Byers’ missed free throw with 1.6 seconds left. After a timeout, Ma’Quena McKinney intercepted the inbounds pass near midcourt to end the game.
“It’s tough,” Cox, Collinsville’s leading scorer with 18 points, said about losing to Ragland in the regional semifinals for the second consecutive year.
Collinsville (22-11) came determined to make Ragland win on the perimeter and had success early, leading 10-5 after one quarter.
Ragland drew within 20-17 at halftime despite 25 percent shooting in the first half and started to take control in the third quarter, outscoring Collinsville 17-9 and building as much as a 34-26 lead.
The Purple Devils spread their offense more and showed better patience getting the ball inside in the second half. They also played better defense, holding Collinsville to 26.3 percent shooting in the second half.
“We played great defense and got the ball inside,” said Echols, MVP of last year’s regional.
Ragland still had to survive two lead changes and two ties in the fourth quarter, the last coming on Kiana Ford’s jumper to make it 40-40 with 4:00 left.
Looney and Echols responded with buckets at 3:03 and 2:30, and Ragland hung on despite losing Echols to her fifth foul with 1:50 to play.
“My girls just stepped up, all of them,” Rutledge said. “They’ve had to step up and play (since the early season injuries), and they’ve done that all year.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.