Shelby County advances to Final Four

By SETH HAGAN | Special to the Reporter

MONTGOMERY – Ashley Phillips’ Shelby County Wildcats have been denied trips to the Final Four in the past. His four senior starters would make sure it didn’t happen again.

Instead, two years after losing to Central-Tuscaloosa in the Elite Eight to be denied a trip to the Final Four, Shelby County sustained a big first quarter from the Falcons, then used the three ball and great defense to take control and pull away for an impressive 63-52 win to claim a spot in the Class 5A Final Four.

Central-Tuscaloosa (27-4) had absolutely dominated its competition to this point in the postseason, winning their first two games by an average of 31.5 points.

And early on, it looked as if the Falcons might put on another repeat performance. The Falcons shot out to a 16-3 lead scoring 16 straight points in the paint as 6-foot-2 senior Sakyia White and 6-foot-6 freshman Kylera Warren took turns grabbing easy entry passes for layups or putting offensive rebounds in the basket.

Point guard Quintasia Leatherwood also drove the lane with ease to keep Shelby County off balance defensively.

But Shelby County senior Skye Knighten-Lilly was ready to lead her team and became the lone bright spot for the Wildcats in the opening quarter, hitting a couple of 3-pointers to keep her team within reach.

Shelby County closed the gap to 20-13 by the end of the period, but the fireworks show was about to begin.

The Wildcats (28-4) began by getting Warren in foul trouble drawing her second foul in the first minute of the second quarter. Shelby County then handled the Falcons’ new lineup on both ends, holding them to just eight points in the period.

Then, Maggie West caught fire.

The senior guard drilled four shots from beyond the arc in a furious rally that fired up the Shelby County crowd and left the Falcons stunned. The Wildcats hit seven threes in the game, all in the first half, and took a 31-28 lead into halftime.

With both teams dominating one quarter apiece, it was the Wildcats who again seized the momentum out of the break.

Phillips employed his team’s full-court press to great success, forcing 13 turnovers in the game, while the Wildcats held Central to eight points for the second consecutive quarter.

Shelby County also kept Warren in foul trouble, which made forced Central to play a small ball lineup. The Wildcats also held White scoreless in the period.

It was senior Nataley Whitner’s turn to take over, as the Wildcats pushed their lead to double digits in the third. Whitner scored 11 of her 18 points in the quarter, as she relentlessly attacked the basket.

That helped Shelby County took a 45-36 into the final period.

Central made its final push in the fourth, but couldn’t make headway as the Wildcats matched them basket for basket. The three-headed senior monster of West, Whitner and Knighten-Lilly closed out the special win.

Whitner added seven more, while West and Knighten-Lilly each scored four.

The trio finished with 18 points each, while Whitner led the way on the glass with 11 rebounds.

Senior point guard Aaliyah Cotton was also a steady presence for the Wildcats scoring four points while dishing out four assists with only three turnovers.

Shelby County will now take on Madison Academy in the Final Four on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at the BJCC in Birmingham. Tip off for the semifinal matchup is scheduled for 6 p.m.

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.