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Lady Tigers reach Final Four

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
One of the few questions people may have of the T.R. Miller Lady Tigers is their ability to win close games.
T.R. Miller went into Saturday's Class 3A Southwest Regional championship game with an average margin of victory of 38 points a game. They had won just one game by single digits (nine against Alabama Christian Academy) and they lost their only game decided by five points or less (by two to Pensacola).
The Lady Tigers picked a great time to answer that possible doubt, as they earned another trip to Birmingham and the state tournament with a 33-22 triumph over the Sumter County Lady Wildcats in Saturday's Southwest Regional title game held at the University of South Alabama at Mobile.
"At least today, I thought we handled this close game pretty well," T.R. Miller coach Ron Jackson said.
It marks the third straight year and eighth time in the last 10 seasons the Lady Tigers (28-2 and winners of 17 straight) have reached the state tournament. In three of those years, (1995, 1996 and 2002) they won it all.
On a day where T.R. Miller's offense was held to nearly half of its season avearge, the Lady Tigers' defense capped off a tremendous two games in Mobile with a smothering performance against Sumter County.
"We depend a lot on our defense and we're usually pretty successful with it," Jackson said.
T.R. Miller, which allowed just 51 points in its two regional games, held Sumter County (16-9) to just 24 percent shooting from the field (10-for-41).
The Lady Tigers' defense needed that kind of effort because they had plenty of offensive struggles of their own. T.R. Miller shot just 31 percent from the field for the game (10-for-31), a figure that was just 21 percent in the first half (five-for-24).
Despite the Lady Tigers' early shooting woes, they still managed to take a seven-point lead at half-time.
"It was a concern we were shooting that poorly, but it was good that we shot that poorly and we were still ahead at half-time," Jackson said. "We expected the game to be this kind of style. It seems like every year we'll see Francis Marion or Sumter County along the way and they play similar styles that are hard to score against. That's why it is so important to play good defense."
Neither team was able to generate much offense for most of the game. T.R. Miller hit just one of its first 15 shots, while Sumter County connected on only two of its first 10 attempts.
A three-pointer by Keonshaye Lane and two free throws by Ashley Samuel accounted for all of T.R. Miller's first quarter production. Despite the low output, the Lady Tigers led almost the entire first quarter until a free throw by Endya Burton and an offensive rebound basket by Rekina Crawford late in the quarter tied things up at 5-5.
The second quarter fell into a similar pattern. Samuel hit two free throws and Lane hit a shot from the wing that put T.R. Miller back in front at 9-5. The Lady Tigers would never relinquish that lead.
The lead was just 11-10 until Samuel, who earned Southwest Regional Tournament Most Valuable Player honors, hit a three-pointer with just under two minutes lef tin the half and another trey just before the half-time buzzer that increased the gap to 17-10. Those turned out to be the only field goals of the game for Samuel, who still managed to lead all scorers with 14 points.
"Those were big threes because it gave us a little bit of breathing room," Jackson said.
As stingy as both sides were on defense in the first half, things got even tighter in the third quarter when only six total points were scored.
Fortunately for T.R. Miller, it had four of those points. A field goal by Jasmine Sanford extended T.R. Miller's lead up to 19-10 before Sumter County's Jessica Delaine and the Lady Tigers' Joy McCorvey traded buckts to close out the quarter with T.R. Miller still up by nine points, 21-12.
A field goal by McCorvey in the early moments of the fourth quarter pushed the Lady Tigers' advantage into double digits for the first time at 23-12. A bucket by Sanford off an assist from McCorvey with just over four minutes left kept the lead at 11 points at 25-14.
Sumter County took advantage of a couple of T.R. Miller turnovers and a missed free throw to get back in the game. On the other end of the floor, the Lady Wildcats got a pair of field goals by Tiffany Love and another buket by Burton to cut the gap to just 25-20 with nearly three minutes still left.
Over the next minute Sanford drove the baseline for a score and Samuel hit two free throws to make it 29-20. Samuel, who was eight-for-10 from the free throw line, hit two more charity tosses to push the cushion up 31-20 with just 1:25 left.
T.R. Miller will open up state tournament play today at 12 noon where it will face DAR (27-6). DAR won the Northeast Regional with a 67-37 triumph over Plainview. Abbeville and Lauderdale County will square off in the other semifinal at 9 a.m. The two winners will return for the championship Friday at 6 p.m.
At Mobile
T.R. Miller 5 12 4 12 – 33
Sumter County 5 5 2 10 – 22
T.R. MILLER (2FG-3FG-FT-TP) Samuel 0-2-8-14; Sanford 4-0-2-10; Lane 1-1-0-5; McCorvey 2-0-0-4 (Totals: 7-3-10-33)
SUMTER COUNTY (2FG-3FG-FT-TP) Burton 3-0-2-8; Love 3-0-0-6; Crawford 2-0-0-4; Delaine 1-0-0-2; Drummond 1-0-0-2 (Totals: 10-0-2-22)