Top-ranked Woodland cruised to victory on Thursday night, dominating Lanett 69-43 in the Class 2A Northeast Regional final to advance to the Final 48 in Birmingham next week. The win came three days after the Lady Bobcats were able to advance past the semifinals, something they had only done twice since 1999.
The only Woodland Northeast Regional championship came in 2011 and was followed by an appearance in the Class 2A state championship game. However, the Lady Bobcats fell 71-53 to Tanner.
“I still think they’re babies now, but they were really babies in 2011,” Woodland coach Larry Strain said. “Of my starters, I think four were ninth graders at the time. This is kind of a chance to renew ourselves. They’re a little older and mature now, but I still don’t think they can get in the car and go dating anybody as much as I can keep them away from it.”
Woodland’s Final 48 trip this year will begin Tuesday in the state semifinals at 9 a.m. at the BJCC Arena. They’ll play either Providence Christian (27-3) or Elba (20-3). Those two teams will play for the South Regional title today at 3:40 p.m.
Tournament most valuable player Leah Strain finished with 26 points for Woodland (32-2).
Shanna Strain finished with 20, shooting 3-for-6 beyond the 3-point arc. Both players also made the all-tournament team, along with Shalyn Strain.
Although the Lady Bobcats’ win turned out lopsided, the game didn’t start that way.
Lanett held an early 6-2 lead, while Woodland struggled shooting and rebounding. While shooting picked up, the rebounding battle never did, with the Panthers having 43 to the Lady Bobcats’ 23.
“I didn’t know how we could control the boards,” Larry Strain said. “Several people emailed me and text me and said that 70 to 90 percent of the time, the team that wins the rebounding battle wins the game in the regionals and goes to the Final Four. That was some concern to me.”
It ended up being defense that changed the game for the Woodland, which forced 23 turnovers. When Larry Strain called for a full-court press, the Lanett turnovers began piling up quickly.
Woodland retook the lead at the 3:31 mark in the first quarter, as the Lady Bobcats started a 35-10 run to end the first half.
“The thing about our press and running down the floor is we can press you, we can press you and we can press you and you not make a mistake, and of a sudden you make one,” Larry Strain said. “One turns to two, two turns to four then before you know, it’s a six- or eight-point swing.”
On the offensive end, Leah Strain continued to drive, draw fouls and pick up points at the line, as Shanna Strain rained 3s.
“We went into the game not knowing who was going to shoot, but we knew they were going to play that 3-2 zone,” Larry Strain said. “We tried to drop our wings a little more down to force the girl at the top have to guard her. We knew that either Shanna, Shalyn or Leah was going to get shots from 3.”
Things didn’t get easier for Lanett in the second half as Woodland’s points continued to stack up behind 76.5 percent shooting.
Although Lanett was unable to make a serious push at a comeback, trailing by as many as 31 points, Panthers coach Jennifer Norris said she like the way her team played toward the end of the game.
“They fought hard in the fourth quarter,” she said. “If they fought in the first half in the fourth quarter, I think the game would have been a lot different in the outcome from what it was.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star