'Lady 'Landers fall short to USJ

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR CORRESPONDENT

   MURFREESBORO -- The University School of Jackson Lady Bruins, backed behind strong performances from Rachel Cole and stunning freshman Courtney Alvey, did what they had to do in the beginning to top the Cloudland Lady Highlanders.
   After being down 44-21 at the end of the third quarter, the Cloudland team, led by a heartfilled effort from Taukia Hughes and Tara Hanson, battled against the odds and outscored the Lady Bruins 22-12 in the fourth quarter, yet fell 56-43 in round one of the TSSAA state tournament.
   "I was so proud of them," said Cloudland coach Matt Birchfield. "They never quit. We had two good runs on them, but dug ourselves a little deep. I'm proud of what they've accomplished this season."
   Despite the loss, Birchfield was pleased with the effort of his big-game players, Hughes and Hanson, who helped Cloudland battle back into the game late.
   "Taukia stepped up big, and Tara made some shots," Birchfield said. "USJ has a great team. There were times when we weren't ready, but we played hard and the other kids played well."
   USJ's head coach Carmen Hines was a little worried about Cloudland's late run.
   "They did a good job of taking us out of our momentum," said Hines. "But we closed with a win. It wasn't how we would've liked it, but we'll take it. We played three good quarters, and had some 'x-factors' step up and play."
   The game opened up early with some back-and-forth goals from Rachel Cole and Hanson, Amy Storie and Hughes helped the Cloudland girls reach scoring positions, but Jennifer Perry and Courtney Alvey were too much for the Lady 'Landers as USJ took a 16-9 advantage over Cloudland in the first.
   Hughes scored all of Cloudland's second-quarter points, but the Bruins closed the door on Cloudland as Emily Brown and Alvey led the USJ charge ending the first half at 30-15.
   Cloudland took a quick jump on USJ to begin the third quarter, cutting the lead to nine points. But USJ would make a big comeback, as Cole and Alvey led the Bruins to a 44-21 lead going into the fourth.
   "We were nervous at first," said Hanson. "But in the fourth quarter we knew we had nothing to lose, so we let it loose."
   Cloudland played Lady 'Lander basketball the way it was meant to be played, as Hanson finally got her game going, along with a last-ditch effort from Taukia Hughes, Amy Storie, Crystal Arnold, Nikki Webb, Stachia Johnson, Amanda McKinney, Natasha Benfield and Holly Blair.
   The ladies played down to the wire, ending their season on a positive note.
   "It's terrible to lose," said Hanson, who finished with a team-high 15 points. "These senior girls are the best seniors, we're going to miss them. We made all of our goals and had a great year."
   "We played our hearts out," said Storie. "We came out a little flat. We had a good season, and we're going to miss the seniors very much."
   The loss ended the Highlanders' season with a 26-8 record, and ended the high school career of the team's senior leader, Hughes.
   "It's really a joy to have been here," said Hughes, who tallied 14 points and 11 boards. "We only made it here for one reason, that's our team, and we played team ball. No matter what anyone says, this was a great way to end the season. I love my girls, and I'll be there for them next year. I just want to thank everyone who supported me."
   Cole led all scorers with 17 for USJ, while teammates Courtney Alvey and Jennifer Perry contributed 15 and 10, respectively, for the Lady Bruins.
   Though this season comes to an end, it's only the beginning for next year's team, which could very well make a return to the 'boro.
   "We hope to come back," said Birchfield. "We have six juniors returning, they are a good group. We just need to bond, and the seniors are going to have to step into the leadership position. We need to work all summer and improve."
   Said Storie: "We're coming back next year!"