AS THE postseason nears, Jackson County looks like a team aiming for an extended stay there.
The Lady Panthers (11-13, 8-3) have won eight of their last 10 games and locked up the no. 2 seed out of 8-AA South for the upcoming Region 8-AA tournament.
“The big thing is that we’re 8-3 (in subregion play),” Jackson County coach John Hawley said. “We’re sitting in a great spot. That’s the sign of a good team to be able to start slow and finish strong.”
Jackson County plays its regular season finale Friday against Jefferson, which is red-hot in subregion play right now. The Lady Panthers will attempt a season sweep of the Lady Dragons, who have trampled their past two subregion foes by a combined 47 points.
“Of course, like we’ve always said, whenever you play somebody in the county, that’s always an emotional game,” Hawley said.
The Panthers beat another rival, East Jackson, 41-30 this past Friday behind a big second half in earning that no. 2 berth.
Guard Victoria Fontana played a major factor in the 11-point win.
The junior accounted for nearly half of her team’s points in a 20-point performance, 17 of i which came in the second half. Fontana’s third- and fourth-quarter showing helped Jackson County turn a one-point lead at half time into an 18-point advantage by the middle of the fourth quarter.
“We know she’s the most dangerous player on the court,” East Jackson coach Katie David said. “She not only got a rhythm hitting an outside shot or two, she was going to the hoop and scoring in the lane. I don’t know of many teams that can stop her when she’s like that.”
Hawley said Fontana’s success was a result of a Lady Panther offense finally getting settled.
“In the second half, we finally attacked the basket, hit the middle and kicked and got some good movement, and what that does is get you into the flow of the game,” Hawley said.
Katie Phillips added 11 points on a night when only four Lady Panthers scored.
Taylor Patrick paced East Jackson with 10 points. No other Lady Eagles reached double figures.
Hawley was generally pleased with his team’s defensive effort as the Lady Panthers held East Jackson to 19 points through the first three quarters.
“I felt like we defended really well until the last three and a half minutes of the ball game,” Hawley said.
Jackson County led 12-11 after a low-scoring first half as both offenses searched for their rhythm.
“A lot of credit to (East Jackson coach) Katie (David),” Hawley said. “Their kids played really hard. They defended really well and did some really good things.”
But as the Lady Panther offense found its flow in the second half, Fontana heated up. She scored seven of Jackson County’s first nine points in the third quarter, including a three-pointer at the 3:38 mark to put the Lady Panthers up 18-14.
Macey Latty later cracked a three-pointer, followed by a long-range jumper from Phillips just inside the three-point arc that pushed the lead out to 23-17. Fontana closed the third quarter with a steal and a layup to give Jackson County a 28-19 edge.
The Lady Panthers further separated themselves in the fourth quarter. Fontana drilled a three-pointer with 4:33 left in the game, and the lead grew to 36-21.
Fontana then found an open Phillips on the baseline on the next possession and the sophomore post player knocked down a long jumper to give Jackson County its largest lead of the night, 38-21.
“They hit big shots, and that was really the bottom line,” David said.
East Jackson ended the game with a 9-3 run to make the final margin closer.
“I thought our team never quit,” David said. “They could have kind of blown it open there for a minute but we came back. It was too little to late at that point.”
As for Jackson County, by virtue of its no. 2 seed, it will receive a first-round bye in the region tournament. It would then play Thursday (site is still undetermined) in the second round against the winner of the no. 3 North/no. 6 South game. Barring an upset, Jackson County would have the arduous assignment of facing East Hall, Rabun County or Union County in that matchup. East Hall and Rabun County are both ranked in the top 10.