Chelsea girls headed to regionals for first time since 2001

Published 10:02 pm Monday, February 11, 2019

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

CHELSEA – The Chelsea Hornets’ girls basketball team continued to be one of the turnaround stories of the year in high school sports across Alabama on Monday, Feb. 11.

After winning all of three games last season, the 2018-19 squad was determined to make up for the disappointing season, by laying it all in the line in every game this season, and on Monday, Feb. 11, that hard work paid off, as the Hornets took down Benjamin Russell 58-45 to earn their first Regional berth since 2001.

It’s hard to explain how impressive that is, but after being able to barely win a game a year ago, Chelsea has not only won its area tournament championship this year, but took down another top tier opponent to earn a spot as one of the 16 best teams in the 6A classification.

“More than anything, it says the kids on our roster have unbelievable character,” head coach Jason Harlow said after the historic win. “Coming back from the season we went through last year, and battling through some of the players we lost coming into this year, just shows you what kind of kids we have.”

From the opening tip, the Hornets looked ready to play and almost let the big moment fuel them instead of make them nervous with their season and a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

Between Pressley Rains, Ellen Fleming and Mackenzie Titus, the Hornets didn’t just come ready to play, they put together possibly their best quarter of the season considering the situation.

Titus went 5-5 from the free throw line and had seven points in the quarter, Rains poured in two 3-pointers and had eight points in the quarter, and Fleming hit three field goals for six points in the quarter.

That scoring, as well as a layup from Suzanne Ridgway at the buzzer, gave Chelsea 23 points in the opening period of the game, as the Hornets had been shot out of a cannon to take a 23-13 advantage.

“We play two different styles,” Harlow said of the differences between the two teams. “They want to play more of a half court. We want to get up and down a little bit more, and get dribble-drive going. In the first quarter, I thought we did a good job of playing our game.”

Jaaliyah Caldwell was able to keep the Wildcats in the game at the end of the first quarter thanks to her seven points in the first quarter.

Chelsea looked to be off and running again in the second quarter after Rains hit her third 3-pointer of the game, but Benjamin Russell had a big answer.

The Wildcats were able to start a run shortly after that made basket. At first it started at 7-2 with Chelsea not getting any good looks at the basket, but then it spread to 12-2 after Chelsea had several great shots just lip out.

All of the misses kept the Hornets from setting up their full-court press, which the thrive on. Without that defensive pressure, Benjamin Russell was able to get back in the game throughout the period.

“The press is very important and has been big for us this year,” Harlow said. “It causes deflections, but just from an energy standpoint it keeps us from getting back on our heels defensively.”

Ridgway was able to hit a big 3-pointer with 1:06 left in the half, before the Wildcats grabbed an offensive board and put back at the buzzer to cut Chelsea’s lead to 31-27 at the half after trailing by 10 entering the second quarter.

Chelsea quickly put that quarter behind them, however, and was able to come out of the locker room and start the third quarter on a quick 4-0 run.

While Benjamin Russell started making shots shortly after, the game became a back-and-forth affair with Hornets answering every shot the Wildcats made.

The key came with six seconds left in the period as Titus got the ball on an inbounds pass in the corner nearest her team’s bench and drained a 3-pointer to put Chelsea up by 10 points at 43-33 heading to the final quarter.

Just like they started the game, the Hornets let that confidence fuel them heading to the final quarter instead of thinking about what was at stake, and they came out in the fourth quarter with one goal, dominate.

Benjamin Russell was able to battle to within six points with a little more than two minutes remaining in the game, but Chelsea yet again had plenty of energy to answer ever little spurt the Wildcats tried to put together.

Chelsea quickly built the lead back up to 10 points at 52-42 with 1:35 left to play, and at that point, Benjamin Russell was pressing, while the Hornets smelled blood.

The Hornets allowed three more points over the final 1:30 of the game, while scoring six more themselves to close out the game with a 58-45 victory to make all of this year’s hard work worth it.

Rains led Chelsea with 19 points thanks to seven made field goals, including three 3-pointers, as well as a 2-2 mark from the free throw line. Titus was just behind with 16 points, while Fleming added 12 points.