The Handley boys and girls basketball teams are one win away from a trip to the state final four.
Both teams put together dominant performances against Priceville in the Northeast Regional semi-final in Jacksonville Saturday. The boys built a 16-point lead in the second half before cruising to a 61-50 victory, while the girls completed the Handley sweep with a 76-59 win.
There was no need for a buzzer beater Saturday for the Handley boys.
Handley, which reached the Northeast Regional thanks to game-winning shots at the buzzer in each of its last two games, took the lead early and never let it go in a 61-50 win over Priceville in the regional semi-final game. The win puts Handley one victory away from its second-ever trip to the state final four.
Priceville had no answer for Handley senior Rondai Banks, who was a force on the interior on both ends of the floor and finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.
When asked about Banks’s performance in the post-game press conference, Handley head coach Larry Strain used the question as a light-hearted coaching opportunity for his senior, who was sitting next to him at the table.
“This is kind of a running joke with me and Rondai. And Rondai, you’ve got to smile over here now,” Strain said with a laugh. “Rondai likes to play offense, but he doesn’t like to play defense too hard. Isn’t that what I talk about all the time, Rondai? What did I tell you before we came down here, what the difference had to be in the game, was what? You had to play defense for us and help us control the tempo of the game, is what we talked about.”
Several of Banks’s blocked shots helped create transition opportunities for the Tigers, who had a 10-0 advantage over Priceville in fast break points in the game.
“We’re not an excellent team in the half-court offense, and I felt like that if we played their pace and set up in the half-court offense, I felt like we would struggle,” Strain said. “We needed to play fast, get up and down the court and make it more of wide-open game.”
Those transition points – and a 51-28 rebounding advantage for Handley – helped the Tigers overcome 22 turnovers. Cannon Kyles was a big part of that rebounding edge as he posted a double-double of his own with 18 points and 10 boards.
The Tigers forced Priceville into a cold shooting performance from outside. The Bulldogs made just 1-of-14 from beyond the arc in the first half as Handley built 27-23 lead at the break. In all, Priceville made 5-of-27 three-pointers, and with Handley’s dominance on the defensive glass that turned out to be a pivotal statistic in the game.
The game was tied 10-10 late in the first quarter, and Handley, which had zero players with experience playing in a regional, showed its early nerves by missing several point-blank shots at the rim.
But the Tigers took the lead on a shot by Terrance Tucker inside the final minute of the first quarter, and they never trailed again.
Priceville hung around, however. After Handley built a 20-10 lead, the Bulldogs cut it to two at 25-23 late in the second quarter.
Handley’s lead was as small as three points late in the third quarter, but they closed the quarter on a 5-0 run, including a three-point play by Tamarious Treadwell with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. That surge carried over into the fourth quarter as Handley eventually built its largest lead of the game at 59-43 with 3:26 to go.
Handley will play Wednesday at 10:45 a.m. against Jacksonville with a spot in the state final four on the line. Jacksonville has a record of 25-5 and features four-star prospect Cade Phillips, who has offers from Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Stanford, among others.
In the girls game, Handley played like the playoff-experienced team that it is. In their fourth straight appearance in the regional round of the state tournament, Handley was calm, cool and collected from start to finish as they moved to the regional final for the third straight season.
“I feel like our team wasn’t really nervous, having that experience,” said Handley senior Emelia Askew. “We’ve been here [at regionals] four times. The first time I was nervous, the first two times, actually. And I feel like being part of the team in previous years has prepared me, so more excited than nervous to come out here and play.”
The emergence of Askew as a third scoring threat alongside Teanna Watts and Takeriauna Mosley has boosted Handley throughout the postseason, and Saturday was no different. As Watts struggled to find an offensive rhythm early, Askew was there to pick up the slack.
“This young lady right here had the ballgame of her life,” said Handley head coach Courtney Screws at the post-game press conference, referring to Askew. “I’m very proud of her.”
Askew went 5-for-5 from the floor in the first half and finished the first two quarters with 11 points, and Mosley hit 3-of-6 three-pointers on her way to 14 first-half points as Handley built a 34-19 lead at the break.
Things never really got better for Priceville as Handley refused to leave any meaningful crack in the comeback door. Handley’s lead never dropped below 14 points and swelled to 24 points with just under two minutes remaining.
Watts found her groove offensively in the second half and finished with a team-high 24 points and 7 rebounds. She routinely attacked the basket and went 12-for-19 from the free throw line in the game.
Askew and Mosley finished with 17 points apiece.
The only thing standing between Handley and its first-ever trip to the state final four is a very good New Hope team, which knocked off Anniston 57-44 in Saturday’s other 4A girls semi-final.
“They shoot the ball extremely well,” Screws said of New Hope. “They’re guard heavy, great ball-handlers and great shooters. And we’ve got to be able to disrupt the shots, and we’ve got to be able, again, to push in transition because that’s our best offense.”
Handley defeated New Hope in the regional semi-final a season ago.
Handley’s girls have never been to the state final four. Saturday’s game will mark the third straight chance for seniors Askew and Watts to break through that barrier.
“It would mean a lot,” Askew said. “To make history at Handley, it would be one of the best feelings in the world. And even if we did get that far, I would want to go even further because that’s the main goal. That is the goal, to be in the final four, but that’s not the main goal.”
Handley and New Hope will meet in the regional finals in Jacksonville at 9 a.m. Wednesday.