PHENIX CITY — The Central-Phenix City Lady Red Devils found out Friday just how hard it can be to beat the same team three times in one season. Despite the difficulty, Nya Upshaw and her teammates got the job done.
Upshaw hit two go-ahead free throws with 1:12 left in the fourth quarter then delivered four more free throws in the remaining time to help the Lady Red Devils top Auburn 56-50 in the Area 4-7A tournament title game. The dramatic victory gives Central its first area tournament title in three years.
“They just refused to lose,” Central coach Carolyn Wright said. “I put it on the seniors and then the entire team that, look, if you’re going to get it done, everybody’s got to bring their best game. If somebody’s not bringing their best game, the rest of you have got to step it up and do what you need to do to win.
“We made a couple of adjustments by keeping the ball out of (Auburn’s Olivia Porter’s) hands and making everybody else try to work hard. I think that was the most successful thing for us in that win.”
Central (19-7) had appeared in control when Porter led Auburn (17-8) on a late comeback that saw the Lady Tigers take a 47-45 lead after Porter’s two free throws with 1:38 remaining. After Central’s Eryn Johnson hit a layup courtesy an assist from Sierra Roberts, the game was officially deadlocked with 1:25 remaining in regulation.
From there, the Lady Red Devils completely took over.
Upshaw delivered her two free throws to put Central ahead by two points, and after a missed Auburn layup Kaitlyn Jenkins came through with a layup of her own to leave the score at 51-47 with 1:06 on the clock. Upshaw pulled down a crucial defensive rebound on the next possession and was immediately fouled, which sent her to the line once again.
Just like she did 30 seconds prior, Upshaw connected on both shots. Those free throws created a 53-47 contest with 42 seconds remaining.
Central wasn’t done at that point, either.
Mya Richardson pulled down a defensive rebound, was fouled and came through on one free throw to put Central ahead by seven with 29 seconds to go. After Porter went 1-of-2 from the line 12 seconds later, Upshaw returned to the charity stripe and hit both attempts to cap a 7-1 Central run and leave the Lady Red Devils with a 56-48 advantage.
Porter managed one more layup before the clock expired, but it was not enough to overcome the fact that Central made crucial plays with the game on the line.
“We’ve grown up a lot. We used to miss free throws, and we used to miss the little easy stuff around the basket. This game meant a lot to them,” Wright said. “They really, really, really wanted to get that area championship back because they had been without it for a minute. They really wanted to get it back, and they proved themselves tonight.”
Jenkins scored 16 points in the victory, while Upshaw put up seven as the team’s second-leading scorer. Upshaw as well as teammates Roberts and Jasymn Burts were named to the All-Area Tournament team, with Burts taking home MVP honors.
Porter, meanwhile, put up a game-high 26 points in addition to recording six rebounds and six steals and was also named to the All-Tournament Team. Syriah Daniels, who put up 11 points and six rebounds in the loss, also made the All-Tournament squad.
Both teams are now headed to the Class 7A subregionals. Wright’s players have their minds set on Feb. 13 now, and as far as the veteran coach is concerned, the key is to make the most out of Friday’s exciting victory as the team searches for something even bigger.
“My message is let’s take this game on into the next game and just grow from it,” Wright said. “We need to find out the things that we fell short at, fix those things and let’s be ready to play.”