Shelby County headed to Elite Eight for 2nd time in 3 years

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

MONTGOMERY – Sitting in a five-point game heading to the final quarter of play against LeFlore on Monday, Feb. 17, in the Dunn Oliver Acadome on the campus of Alabama State, the Shelby County Wildcats had the time lapse between the third and fourth quarter to think about a lot.

A close-knit team with four seniors in the starting lineup, the Wildcats had been to the Sweet 16 each of the last four years and to the Elite Eight once. But what has stuck out is the losses, twice in the Sweet 16 and once in the Elite Eight, that kept them from the Final Four. This year, the goal is to overcome that heartbreak and clinch a spot as one of the best 5A teams in the state.

That will and determination was evident in against LeFlore in the Sweet 16, as the Wildcats came out in the final quarter with an 11-0 run that gave them a comfortable advantage and helped them close out a 53-43 win that sent them back to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years.

The final quarter started with a four-point play from leading scorer Maggie West, who drained a 3-pointer through contact then drained the free throw. She backed that up with another 3-pointer, while Skye Knigthen-Lilly and Aaliyah Cotton each added jumpers.

With that 11-0 run, Shelby County jumped out in front 43-27, and while LeFlore was able to get within eight again at 51-43, the deficit was too much to overcome.

The main reason LeFlore was in the game at that point was the number of offensive rebounds the Rattlers were able to pick up. To that point, they had outrebounded the Wildcats 21-5 on the offensive end. That kept the game close throughout, despite the Wildcats opening in dominant fashion.

In the opening quarter, Shelby County shot 6-10 from the floor and forced six turnovers to take a strong 16-4 lead early on.

The second quarter, however, was a different story.

LeFlore came out and locked down defensively, while also finding success on the offensive glass. That led to Shelby County going from a 6-10 quarter to a 0-7 quarter from the field.

The Rattlers went on to outscore the Wildcats 12-3 in the period, which brought them to within three points at the halftime break.

That trend carried into the second half when LeFlore came out and started the third quarter on a 6-2 run to take its first lead of the game at 22-21 with 5:40 left in the period.

The Wildcats, however, was finally able to start grabbing rebounds and forcing turnovers again, which led to their bread and butter—the fast break.

Shelby County answered with an 8-0 run to storm back in front, and despite a quick 4-0 run answer from the Rattlers, the Wildcats got a 3-pointer from West, which set the stage for the final quarter.

Up 32-27 to start the fourth quarter, that’s when effort played a factor. Shelby County not only started with the quick 4-point play, but was diving for loose balls and quick to everything. Even hobbling around, Nataley Whitner laid out to force several turnovers and jump balls down the stretch, which helped the Wildcats close out the win.

West led Shelby County with 21 points, while also adding eight rebounds and three assists. Whitner posted 14, several of which came in the fourth quarter, while Skye Knighten-Lilly and Aaliyah Cotton had 10 and eight, respectively.

The Wildcats will now take on either Central-Tuscaloosa or Faith Academy in the Elite Eight on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 9 a.m.