When the Handley Lady Tigers step onto the court against Trinity in the Southeast Regional semifinals on Monday in Montgomery, they’ll have something that none of the players who took that same court a year ago had – experience.
“Last year I did not have one kid on my team that had ever played in the regional tournament,” said Handley head coach Courtney Screws. “Now I’ve got all but four, my eighth and ninth grader and my two 10th graders. But everybody else played there and got time there last year, so I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”
Last year marked the first time since 2016 that Handley had advanced to a regional. It was an unsatisfyingly brief stay as the Lady Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Headland, 47-46 in the regional semifinal.
This year’s team is back for a shot at redemption after they took care of business in the area tournament last week, then knocked off Leeds in the subregional Monday night.
Handley defeated Holtville 64-2 in the first round of the area tournament last Tuesday, then thumped Booker T. Washington 67-25 in the tournament finals Friday.
In that area championship game Handley held a 39-17 halftime advantage, then scored the first 13 points of the third quarter to put the game out of reach.
Handley got double-figure scoring from Teanna Watts (12 points) and Emelia Askew (10 points), while Takeriauna Mosley – Screws’s aforementioned eighth-grader – added 9 points and a team-best eight rebounds.
Mosley was once again instrumental in the 57-34 subregional win over Leeds Friday as she scored nine points in the first quarter and finished with 14 off the bench.
“Her last few ballgames she has come along tremendously,” Screws said of Mosley. “To begin with she was a little bit timid, a little unsure of herself. And that comes. She’s thrown into a varsity game as an eighth-grader, and there’s not a lot of people, especially in 4A, who have to do that. Her improvement the last few games is going to be key for us in the playoffs.”
Watts, who is an experienced sophomore, led Handley with 18 points, including a stretch of eight straight points in the second half as Handley built its largest lead of the game.
Leeds trailed for almost the entire game but hung around into the third quarter, when Handley held a 33-20 advantage with just over four minutes left.
But Watts scored 10 of the next 12 points for Handley as the Lady Tigers built the lead up to 25 points with 4:18 left in the game.
It’s the third straight area championship and second straight subregional victory for Handley, now in its fourth year under Screws. Each year under her charge the team has pushed one step further into the playoffs, and the coach wants to see that trend continue.
“You always want to do better the next year than what you did the last,” Screws said. “And obviously we got beat in a heartbreaker last year, one point to Headland. That’s left a sour taste in all of our mouths, and I think my girls are fired up and ready to take on this challenge.”
That challenge will be presented by a Trinity team that enters the regional with a 22-7 record. According to Screws, Trinity relies on a drive-and-kick offense built around a solid point guard and a strong group of outside shooters.
Handley will counter with its trademark full-court pressure to try to disrupt the rhythm of those Trinity shooters and give itself opportunities for easy baskets on the offensive end.
“I know, as a player, you don’t want somebody all up in your face,” Screws said. “And when you don’t shoot the ball well you’ve got to find other ways to perform and to score points, so pressure defense, pressing, man-to-man and run out in transition is our style of basketball.”
Screws said she hopes to practice at the Southern Union basketball arena at least once this week to prepare her players for the cavernous backdrop of Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, where this year’s regional will be played.
“Just to have a bigger arena with no background because Garrett Coliseum is huge,” Screws said. “It’s the biggest regional venue. It’s actually, from what I’ve been told, the exact dimensions of the BJCC [where the final four is played], which I guess is an advantage if you go on and make it to the final four. But it also feels like you’re there playing by yourself because the fans are so far off from the court. But I’m very thankful to get to go back.”
Handley will play Trinity in the regional semifinals on Monday at either 9 a.m. or noon depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s boys subregional games. The AHSAA waits until all the regional teams are decided so they can schedule schools with both boys and girls teams at the regional in back-to-back time slots.
The girls regional will feature the same four teams as last year – Handley, Headland, Trinity and Childersburg. Childersburg emerged as the regional champion a year ago and advanced to the final four.
The Handley boys also advanced to a subregional thanks to a first-round area tournament win over Holtville, but they were in no mood to celebrate after Friday’s 60-48 loss to nemesis Booker T. Washington in the area championship.
A packed gym created a raucous atmosphere for Friday’s tournament finale, but Handley fell mostly flat after the teams fought to an 23-21 Booker T. advantage at the half.
“You’re not going to win many games when you go 14-for-31 from the free throw line, especially at home against a good team,” said Handley head coach Blake Smalley. “And then you miss probably 10 or 12 point blank layups. You’re not going to win many games, ever, playing like that, but especially against a good team.”
Handley never found a rhythm on offense whether it was at the free throw line, in the paint or beyond the three-point arc. The Tigers, a normally solid 3-point shooting team, made just two from downtown, and both of those came in the second half after Handley had fallen into a 10-point hole.
BTW senior center Martez Jones was a force in the paint all night as he scored 11 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.
The Tigers got 14 points from Corey Bell, and Dylan Brooks had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.