Team play leads Lady Irish to gold

By Steve Williams

A “team philosophy” won out in the end said Knoxville Catholic Head Coach Travis Mains after the Lady Irish captured the school’s first-ever girls basketball state title.

Ensworth’s Jaloni Cambridge, the No. 1 player in the ESPN Top 50 and the starting point guard for the USA U-17 team that won a gold medal, scored 41 points, but the defending state champion Tigers didn’t have enough to go with it as Catholic prevailed 64-59 in the BlueCross State Championships in Cookeville on Saturday, March 4.

Sydney Mains, a junior and daughter of the Catholic coach, may have been outscored by the athletic Cambridge, but she outshot the Ensworth star in Eblen Center at Tennessee Tech University.

Mains, still wearing a knee brace after an ACL injury and having surgery in July, totaled 33 points as she connected on 8 of 16 field goal attempts (50 percent), 5 of 9 from 3-point range (55.6 percent) and 12 of 15 free throws (80 percent).

Cambridge was 15 of 41 from the field (36.6 percent), 2 of 13 on 3’s (15.4 percent) and 9 of 13 at the foul line (69.2 percent).

As a team, Catholic (21-12) also had three other significant contributors. Amaya Redd, a 5-11 sophomore forward, scored 14 points and collected seven rebounds. Freshman guard Evaiya Mitchell came off the bench to score seven straight points in a key stretch in the third period to erase a four-point Ensworth lead. Jazmine Williams, a 5-9 guard and one of only two seniors on the team, tracked down six defensive rebounds and had five assists.

Alana Wells chipped in seven points and was the only other player to score more than three for the Tigers (27-5).

“Jaloni is a really good player, but you have to compete against really good players and make her take off-balance shots,” said Coach Mains. “Some of the stuff she does is amazing, but again, five for one team is going to beat one or two kids. A team will always win in a team sport.”

The Lady Irish got off to a slow start and failed to score on their first six possessions. When Ensworth made it 10-0, Coach Mains signaled for a timeout.

A drive inside by Redd finally got Catholic its first points with 4:25 on the clock. The first period ended with the Tigers ahead 16-9.

Mains swished in a 3-pointer from the top of the circle that cut the deficit to 20-18 and brought a roar from Catholic fans at a key point in the second period.

Ensworth Coach Mary Taylor Cowles called a timeout and was assessed a technical foul before play resumed. Mains made both technical foul shots, and after Catholic was awarded possession, Mains was fouled on a drive inside and converted two more free throws that gave the Lady Irish their first lead of the game (22-20). The half ended with Catholic ahead 29-27.

After Ensworth went up by four points (36-32) midway through the third period, Coach Cowles surprisingly called a timeout less than a minute after a media timeout had been taken.

It was at this point, when play resumed, that Mitchell had her seven-point flurry that erased the Tigers’ lead and Ensworth never led by more than two points the rest of the way.

“Double zero (Mitchell) is feisty and plays extremely hard for them,” said Coach Cowles in the post-game interview. “She had a good run for them. Her quickness was extremely very bothersome for us during that stretch.”

Ensworth led 43-41 at the end of the third period and the contest remained close the rest of the way.

Cambridge picked up her fourth foul with the score tied at 51 and 4:22 to go.

Catholic took the lead for good at 53-51 on a drive inside by Mains.

Cambridge made one of two free throws with 29.8 seconds left as the Tigers trimmed Catholic’s lead to 61-59.

Mains made two clutch free throws to extend the lead to four (63-59) with 22.9 seconds remaining and Cambridge misfired on a 3-point attempt at the top of the circle.

Catholic inbounded the ball to Mains, who was fouled with 4.3 seconds on the clock. She tacked on one more free throw for the final score.

“These seniors (Kate Pettinger and Williams) definitely have a special place in our heart, so we wanted to achieve (the state title) for them and also for us and our school because we had never won one in girls (basketball),” said Mains, who was named the tournament’s MVP.

Coach Mains said “the key to the victory was Evaiya Mitchell coming in when it looked like we were shot by John. She just took it over. She said, ‘Let’s Go!’ over and over and over (clapping her hands hard). And everybody goes, ‘We’re gonna win this thing. This is crazy.’”

Evaiya later explained her emotions: “I was just like, we can’t lose this game. We’ve been through so much as a team and I knew I had to put it all on the court and just give it all I have. And it ended up paying off. So I’m very thankful for this team. I’m very thankful for this opportunity and we’ll be back next year.”