Shelby County seniors leave historic mark despite Final Four loss
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
BIRMINGHAM – As Maggie West, Skye Knighten-Lilly, Nataley Whitner and Aaliyah Cotton checked out of a Final Four matchup against Madison Academy inside Legacy Arena with just more than a minute left to play on Wednesday, Feb. 26, it wasn’t the walk they had hoped to take.
Having just lost 65-40 to have their season and career come to an end, it was a heartbreaking way to leave the floor for the final time, but all they had to do was look up to the stands to see the massive crowd cheering and smiling to know it was about more than the outcome.
A senior class that also featured Peri Clark, who was out with a broken foot, had just completed its first Final Four game in school history and had already posted more than 90 career wins together.
“I told them in the locker room that this was a female program that Columbiana came out to show massive support for,” head coach Ashley Phillips. “That’s just awesome to me. We had tough times before this group, but they turned it around and I’ll never forget them.”
The crowd was one of the largest girls crowds of the tournament to that point, as the Wildcat faithful brought a large student section and several people from the community all wearing white to witness history.
No matter what was going on in the game, the players got to look up and see that support. The Wildcats went from a program that won just four games the year before this year’s senior class stepped in to one that went a combined 79-14 the last three years and advanced to at least the Sweet 16 the last four years in a row with a first-ever trip to the Final Four this year.
“As a team, we really worked hard this season,” Knighen-Lilly said. The memories we had were enjoyable and sad at the same time, but I wouldn’t change anything about this.”
Sitting two chairs away after the game, West, the team’s leading scorer, could only nod her head in agreement with the emotions of what she and her team had done overcoming her.
From the start, the game marked a difficult matchup for the Wildcats, who had to deal with 6-foot-2 center Destinee McGhee. The senior center for the Mustangs had a size advantage and showed she was going to be a force all night.
After an early 4-4 tie, Madison Academy went on a 19-4 run to close out the first quarter thanks in large part to kicking off a night that featured 50 points in the pain, 33 rebounds, 20 second chance points and 14 fast break points.
McGhee ended up with a strong opening quarter and carried that into the second period as well. She put up 12 points in the pain in the first half, which helped the Mustangs pull in front.
“We tried to sit in front and double her,” Phillips said after. “They hit a shot or two, and she started pinning us deep in the post. She’s too good that getting the ball as deep as she was leads to easy points.”
That combined with the Wildcats going for steals on missed shots instead of getting back defensively led to easy points on fast breaks for Madison Academy, which put the Mustangs in front 35-15 at the break.
The Wildcats, however, came out of the locker room and into the second half with a bit more energy.
After falling behind 40-17 for their largest deficit of the game to that point, West and Knighten-Lilly hit three combined 3-pointers in a row to cut the deficit to 14 points.
That got the Wildcats back in the game, as they outscored the Mustangs 16-12 in the period, but they still trailed by 16 at 47-31 going to the final period.
With Shelby County needing to put together a quick run in the fourth to cut the deficit to 10 for a chance late, Madison Academy locked down defensively and kept the Wildcats from continuing that offensive rhythm.
Madison Academy instead came out and took control with a quick 9-0 run that extended the lead to 25 points and all but put the game away.
Shelby County found a few more baskets, including two late 3-pointers from Cotton, before the Mustangs closed out the 25-point win.
West ended the game with 14 points and three rebounds to lead the Wildcats, while Knighten-Lilly added 12 points and three rebounds as well. Whitner posted four points and five boards, while Cotton had eight points, four assists and three rebounds.
Despite the outcome, Phillips couldn’t have been more proud of his team and what they had accomplished, and he knows there is more ahead for each of them after setting school history.
“All five of these seniors are going to play college in either basketball or softball and I think that’s unbelievable,” Phillips said. “They’re all special.”
While they walked off the floor for the final time in different circumstances than they had hoped, their mark has been left on the school and a community. Those five names will live on in the history books.
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.