SAVANNAH — Claxton’s first trip to the state girls’ semifinals didn’t turn out nearly as the Lady Tigers would have hoped.
Facing a Randolph-Clay team making its second consecutive Final Four appearance, Claxton dug itself a huge hole early on and never gained much ground, falling 45-30 Saturday afternoon at Savannah State University
“We’re disappointed with the outcome, but I can’t be disappointed in how we played,” Claxton coach Laura Aziz said. “We got behind early, but that had a lot to do with how good (Randolph-Clay) was playing. I thought we fought hard. It just wasn’t enough.”
At 6-foot-3, the Devils’ Kobi Thornton towered over Claxton and was able to muscle her way inside for easy baskets throughout the game. Thornton led all scorers with 20 points and Brandi Buie added 17 more for Randolph-Clay.
From the opening tip, the Red Devils (26-4) put the pressure on the Tigers (24-6) and forced miscues.
Any time Claxton touched the ball, Randolph-Clay deployed a smothering press. Even getting the ball past midcourt didn’t stop the Devils’ defense as up to three players met any Tiger ball handler at the time line to trap.
The relentless pressure resulted in turnovers and easy baskets, allowing Randolph-Clay to score the game’s first 12 points.
“We knew we were giving up some size and speed,” Aziz said. “They really jumped on us early. It took a while for us to settle down and by the time we did, we were pretty far behind.”
Devonna Brewton (13 points) finally got the Tigers on the board with the first of her three 3-pointers at the 2:19 mark of the first quarter.
Brewton hit another from long range in the second quarter, but Keri Brown was the only other Claxton player to record a field goal in the first half as the Devils took a 26-13 lead at the break.
After shaking off the jitters at halftime, Claxton emerged from the locker room more confident and attempted to make a comeback.
Buie hit the half’s first bucket for the Devils, but Brewton connected on a 3 and Taylor Fiveash hit a short jumper to pull the Tigers within 28-18.
As Claxton handled the press better and found open passes, it forced the Devils to let up on their pressure. Midway through the third quarter, Brewton nailed another 3, Fiveash hit a pair of free throws, and another Brewton jumper reeled in the Claxton deficit to 32-25.
“Our girls never stopped fighting,” Aziz said. “I think that when we got comfortable, we played with a little more confidence. All I can ask us to do is to play hard and we did that.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, that was where the comeback stalled.
Buie turned consecutive steals into easy layups and Randolph-Clay reclaimed a 37-25 advantage after the third quarter.
As the final period began, the Red Devils slowed the pace.
Randolph-Clay spread out the floor, using their athleticism and height advantages to play extended games of keep-away with the Claxton defense. The Tigers’ offense continued to find open shots, but couldn’t get on a run that would threaten the Devils’ healthy lead.
Randolph-Clay now moves on to Thursday’s state championship game in Macon. The Red Devils will square off against either Mitchell County or Greenville for the Class A public school title.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.