BY BRIAN HAMILTON
SEYMOUR – They were partying like it was 2020 in Tibbets Gymnasium on Friday night, as the TKA girl’s basketball team earned its first trip to the Final Four since 2020. TKA defeated Providence Christian 71-62 on Friday night, in a neck-and-neck game that was much closer than the final score indicated.
Seniors Juleigh Anne Tucker and Leah Thornton were freshmen on the 2020 team and the only two players on the roster who have experience playing in a state tournament, as reserves. This time, Tucker played a much bigger role than 2020, as her 28 points and six three-pointers helped the Lady Lions to earn that trip to Cookeville.
“It was insane. It was the most game that I’ve ever had the opportunity to play in,” Tucker said after the game. “A lot of people did not think we’d be here. A lot of people thought we would be a one-and-done and get put out in the district and region. I think just to prove everybody wrong is fueling us right now. To be able to play one last game here (at Tibbets gymnasium) means a lot and I’m so grateful that we got to play here.”
TKA head coach Dante Turnipseed was an assistant on the 2020 state runner-up team, but this will be his first rodeo in Cookeville as a head coach. It’s no surprise that Friday night was the biggest win of the young coach’s career.
“Yes, by far,” Turnipseed said after the game. “That’s a very good team and we picked a good night to play our best game. They persevered. We’ve been trying to fight for all four quarters and they put it all together. It helped us big time.”
Providence Christian jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, as Maggie Markham and Daisy Gale hit layups in the early going. The King’s Academy would get its first points on a three by Skylar Walden with 5:20 remaining in the first quarter to cut the early deficit to 4-3.
Another layup by Gale would stretch the PCA lead to 6-3, but Juleigh Anne Tucker would answer with a three to tie the game at 6-6 with just under four minutes left in the first.
TKA took its first lead of the game when Tucker nailed a three and was fouled, giving the Lady Lions a 9-8 lead. The senior guard missed the free throw to convert the four-point play, but The King’s Academy was now in front with 2:33 left in the first quarter.
Aubrie Feskay immediately answered for Providence Christian, knocking down a three to put the visiting Lions in front 11-9. TKA would respond by going on an 8-0 run to take a 17-11 lead when Olivia Loveday grabbed a rebound off a Tucker miss and put it back for a deuce.
C.B. Miller went to the line with five seconds left and split a pair of free throws for PCA, giving TKA a 17-12 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
Providence Christian cut the lead to 21-19 early in the second quarter, but a three by Tucker would stretch the TKA lead back to 24-19. Providence immediately answered with a triple of its own to make the score 24-22 with 4:32 left in the first half.
A rebound and layup by Emily Atchley would give the Lady Lions a 26-22 lead, followed by a Tucker three-pointer to make the score 29-22.
A three by Providence’s Feskay would trim the TKA lead to 29-25 with 3:22 left in the second quarter. Abby McFarland hit a jumper, cutting the lead to 29-27.
On the next TKA possession, Atchley was called for a travel after receiving a pass in the lane and taking three steps with no dribble before laying the ball up — a move that would certainly be legal in today’s NBA.
After the turnover, Brady Branam would pick up her third foul of the night, sending Gale to the line for a pair of free throws to tie the game at 29-29. Branam, who was having a quiet night with four points, would go to the bench and wouldn’t return until the fourth quarter.
“I told the girls, ‘We’ve been preaching all year that Brady can’t foul, but now, that’s her,'” Turnipseed said. “You’ve got to be able to play through that. Liv (Loveday) came in and gave big minutes. Emily (Atchley) came in and gave big minutes. Everybody stepped up with Brady being out.”
With Providence Christian in the midst of a 6-0 run and Branam in foul trouble, Tucker had seen enough. The senior sharpshooter pulled up from NBA range and drilled a three to put the Lady Lions back in front 32-29. Tucker would score a layup on the next TKA possession to make the score 34-29 with just over one minute left in the half.
PCA would hit a layup with 10 seconds left in the first half to cut the King’s Academy lead to 34-31. Tucker’s half-court heave at the buzzer would fall short, but the senior had 17 points in the first half, including five from downtown. TKA would go to halftime clinging to a three-point lead.
Providence’s Aubrie Feskay opened the third quarter with a three to tie the game at 34-34, but Walden would answer with a three of her own to put the Lady Lions back in front 37-34. This was how the third quarter went, for the most part, as both teams traded blows heading down the stretch.
The King’s Academy took a 41-38 lead midway through the quarter when Loveday grabbed a steal and raced upcourt for a layup. Gale would hit a layup and get fouled on the other end, converting the three-point play to tie the game at 41-41.
A pair of free throws by Walden put TKA in front 43-41, but Providence answered once again, as a Gale layup tied the game at 43-43.
Feskay hit her fourth three of the night with 2:45 left in the third, giving the visiting Lions a 46-45 lead, Providence’s first since leading 11-9. The lead would be short-lived, however, as Tucker nailed a midrange jumper on the next TKA possession to put the Lady Lions back in front 47-46.
TKA turned the ball over on its next possession and Gale took the loose ball and raced to the other end to put Providence back in front 48-47 with 1:27 left in the third. Tucker answered with a three to put the Lady Lions back ahead 50-48 with just under a minute left in the quarter.
A layup by Loveday, followed by a steal and layup by Bailey Tidwell would make the score 54-48 going into the final period, as the TKA ended the third quarter on a 7-0 run.
Tidwell scored on a layup and was fouled, giving TKA a 58-50 lead. The freshman guard missed the free throw attempt, however, failing to convert the three-point play. Abby McFarland hit a three on the other end, trimming the Lady Lions’ lead to 58-53 with 4:39 left in the game. A layup by Markham would inch Providence even closer, at 58-55.
TKA went up 61-55 when Tidwell hit a clutch three-pointer to end the mini-run by Providence, but two consecutive baskets by Gale would cut the visiting Lions’ deficit to 61-59 with 2:35 remaining, as PCA was in the midst of a 9-3 run.
Providence was set up in a full-court press for most of the fourth quarter and it began to disrupt the Lady Lions’ ability to get the ball into their half-court set. TKA was able to get the ball up the floor on the next possession, however, and Senior Leah Thornton drove to the basket and made a nice pass to Brady Branam — who had just re-entered the game midway through the fourth due to foul trouble — for a layup to make the score 63-59 with two minutes left.
“I told them to keep fighting,” Turnipseed said of the comeback attempt by Providence. “They’re going to make runs and we have to keep fighting and be able to make a run in the end. We kept giving them extra shots, but I told them ‘If we box and get this rebound, we will come down and score, because we can score.’ We got some stops and some key plays from Juleigh Anne and that helped us big time.
A three-pointer by Providence’s McFarland would inch the visiting Lions even closer, at 63-62. With TKA clinging to a one-point lead, Branam cleaned up a miss and put it back for a 65-62 Lady Lions lead with 1:26 remaining.
Providence was unable to muster anymore offense down the stretch, as Branam’s presence late in the game altered several shots at the rim. Tucker sank two free throws, followed by an old-fashioned three-point play by Tidwell, icing the game for the Lady Lions, who now led 70-62 with 16 seconds left. TKA would come away with a 71-62 win, punching its ticket to the Final Four in Cookeville.
“Shots were falling,” Turnipseed said after the win. “I told them all week that this team is not going to give up and they’re going to fight until the final buzzer, so we can’t go down. We’ve got to keep fighting. This game was at home, so we knew if we could get it close, we know we can shoot at home. That’s why we fought so hard to get a home game. It started falling when it needed to and we closed it out.”
Juleigh Anne Tucker led all scorers with 28 points, while Providence Christian’s Daisy Gale added 27.
“We told her and Leah (Thornton) that no matter what happens, we want this to be your game. This is your last game here (at home),” Turnipseed said. “We told them to go out there and play balls to the wall and win or lose, leave it all out here, and I think they did great. I don’t think Leah or Juleigh Anne came out of the game and they played great. Leah played great defense tonight.”
Bailey Tidwell finished the game with 13 points, all of which came in the second half, while Skylar Walden finished just short of a triple-double with 11 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Aubrie Feskay added 14 points for Providence Christian, with four coming from three-point range.
The Lady Lions (21-10) will face top-ranked Webb-Bell Buckle (30-4) at Tennessee Tech on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CT. Webb is coming off an 83-23 quarterfinal win over Fayette Academy.
All four teams of the Webb lost to were from out of state, as the two-time defending state champs fell to Monteverde (FL), LaLumiere (IN), South Shore (NY) and Sidwell Friends School (DC).