BY BRIAN HAMILTON
WHITE PINE – The King’s Academy has often been led by seniors Juleigh Anne Tucker and Leah Thornton, but on Friday night the Lady Lions needed someone else to step up, as the two stalwarts didn’t have their best games.
TKA relied on an eighth-grader, a freshman and a sophomore to guide the Lady Lions to a region championship berth. Walden finished with a game-high 21 points, hitting three from downtown and a buzzer-beating shot at the end of the third quarter.
“I just shot a few and they just started going in and so I just kept shooting it,” Walden said. “They ran screens for me to shoot it and so I just kept shooting it and it went in.”
Just keep shooting. Simple as that. As the late Jerry Reed would always say, “When you’re hot, you’re hot.”
Skylar Walden is only in middle school, but she may be the talk of the upper school on Monday after her stellar performance helped guide TKA to a region championship berth. Sharpshooting freshman Bailey Tidwell followed, scoring 15 points for the Lady Lions. Brady Branam, which arguably could be called a veteran on this young TKA squad, also played a big role, both scoring and as an inside presence on the glass.
“I try not to give them that excuse that they’re really young, because they’re really, really good,” TKA head coach Dante Turnipseed said after the game. “Sometimes I get in trouble because I say things like, ‘You’re supposed to know this already.’ Then I remember that they are freshmen and eighth-graders and with them being here, they want to get better and the want to learn, so it’s easy to coach them, but the fight has been in them since they were in middle school. They’ve changed this team. Last year, we had the same team, minus one person, but we’ve got a little bit of heart coming up through the ranks.”
The Lady Lions came away with a resounding 72-54 win over Boyd Buchanan on Friday night to advance to the region championship for the first time in four years. TKA traveled to Chattanooga in December and escaped with a narrow 3-point win over the Lady Buccaneers, but on Friday night there would be no dramatic finish.
Boyd Buchanan held an early 4-3 lead over TKA in the early going, but the Lady Lions would storm back and take a 10-6 lead on a Skylar Walden layup with just under two minutes left in the first quarter.
The Lady Buccaneers came back to tie the game at 12-12, but a three by Olivia Loveday would be the difference after one quarter, as TKA led 15-12 after the first frame.
Senior Leah Thornton opened the second quarter with a three to stretch the TKA lead to 18-12, but Boyd’s Lesley Burton would answer with a layup to make the score 18-14.
A Walden three would give TKA a 21-14 lead with just under six minutes left in the second quarter, but the Lady Buccaneers would score on two consecutive possessions, trimming the Lady Lions’ lead to 21-18 and prompting Turnipseed to call a timeout.
Juleigh Anne Tucker was fouled on the next possession after the timeout and converted both free throws to make the score 23-18, but Boyd’s Dani Reeves would answer with a basket to cut TKA’s lead to 23-20 with just over three minutes left in the half.
The King’s Academy would close the second quarter strong, however, as Brady Branam was fouled inside and made a pair of free throws to make the score 26-20, followed by a Walden triple to make the score 29-20 with just over one minute left in the half.
Boyd Buchanan would answer with a three to trim their deficit to six, but Walden pulled up and drained a long 2-point basket at the buzzer to send the Lady Lions to the half leading 31-23.
TKA would stretch its lead to double-figures early in the third quarter, as the Lady Lions took a 40-27 lead with just under five minutes left in the third quarter. Boyd hit a three to cut its deficit to 40-30, but two free throws by Tucker would push the King’s Academy lead back to 42-30.
Reeves converted an old-fashioned three-point play to pull the Boyd Buchanan back to within seven, at 43-36, as the Lady Buccaneers embarked on a 6-1 run to get back in the game.
The Lady Lions would answer, however, as Tucker hit a corner three to make the core 46-36. The TKA lead would never go under double-digits for the remainder of the game, as Walden banked a shot off the glass on the next possession to make the score 48-36.
Bailey Tidwell nailed a three with just over one minute left in the third quarter to give TKA a 51-38 lead, but Reeves would answer with a three of her own, as Boyd trimmed the Lady Lions’ lead to 53-41 with 16 seconds left in the third. TKA would lead by 12 heading into the final stanza.
Branam was fouled on a putback attempt and sank both free throws to put TKA up 57-43. The sophomore center would strike again later in the fourth, as she was fouled on a layup and converted a three-point play, as the Lady Lion lead grew to 62-46 with 2:09 left.
Boyd’s Lesley Burton scored a basket with just under two minutes left to make the score 62-48, but it was too little, too late for the Lady Buccaneers, as TKA went on to win 72-54.
The win advances TKA to the region final for the first time since 2020, when the Lady Lions finished runner-up in Division II Class A.
The Lady Lions were led by Eighth-grader Skylar Walden’s 21 points, followed by 15 from freshman Bailey Tidwell. Sophomore Brady Branam also finished in double-figures with 12. Boyd Buchanan was led by Dani Reeves’ 21 points.
Every time Boyd Buchanan made a run, the Lady Lions answered, which was a positive sign for Coach Turnipseed.
“We just played through adversity and at this time (in the season) we talk about growing up and we’ve grown up a lot,” Turnipseed said. “Against good teams, we’re learning how to fight and earn it. We’re not always going to beat everybody by 70 points. Sometimes they’re going to make runs and we’re going to have to fight through that.”
The King’s Academy (20-9) will face district nemesis CAK (27-5) on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Lakeview Christian for the region championship. The Lady Lions are 0-3 against the Lady Warriors this season, but the win on Friday night assures TKA that it will have a bye and home-court advantage in the state quarterfinals, no matter the result on Saturday night.