After running roughshod through the 1A District 4 tournament and the first round of regionals, Coach Kenny Parker’s Port St. Joe girls basketball squad had to overcome a 12-0 start in the regional finals against the Chipley Tigers before storming back to take a hard-fought 54-45 win and earn their fifth consecutive trip to 1A Final Four.
The Tiger Sharks had sailed through the district tournament by thumping Wewa (61-9) and Blountstown (49-17) before facing Bozeman on Thursday, Feb. 10, in the region semi-finals, and made short order of the Bucks, 55-24.
St. Joe raced to an 11-1 first quarter lead and went to the locker room at halftime with a comfortable 36-5 advantage, with each team scoring 19 points in the second half.
Diminutive point guard Jae Lenox led the Shark charge with 15 points, four assists, and 10 steals. Fellow junior post player Mari Johnson added 11 points, six rebounds, and six steals.
Seniors Amani Jones and Mimi Larry contributed eight points each, and sophomore forward Ty’Shawn Shackleford scored seven points.
This win set up a regional final with the Tiger Sharks hosting Chipley (10-14) on Tuesday, Feb. 15.
The Tigers had secured their slot by crushing Altha 66-11.
Chipley combined a swarming defense and St. Joe turnovers to carve out leads of 12-0 and 14-1 before Johnson hit a layup followed by a Hudgins 3-pointer to bring the initial frame to an end with the Tigers ahead 14-6.
Lenox began the second quarter by hitting consecutive 3’s before Chipley answered with two baskets of its own to increase the lead to 18-12.
With Jones and Johnson asserting themselves down low and Lenox setting the pace, St. Joe clawed its way back to tie the game at 20- and then 22-all before Jones hit a short bank shot at the buzzer to end the half with the score knotted at 26-all.
With Lenox and Larry leading the charge, the Tiger Sharks went on a 15-2 run in the third quarter to take a 41-28 lead before the Tigers answered with five consecutive points of their own. St. Joe held a 43-36 lead going into the final quarter.
Chipley’s full-court pressure prevented the Tiger Sharks from scoring for the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, and when they called a timeout with only 1:21 remaining in the hotly contested game, they had reduced the St. Joe lead to only 47-45.
However, Lenox found Jones open for two quick layups to widen the Shark lead, and Larry followed with two free throws before Lenox ended the night’s scoring with a free throw of her own to bring the turnover-laden contest to an end.
Shaking his head at the number of Shark turnovers (26) in the game, Coach Parker said “We’ve got to be focused and ready to play. The Chipley coach (Justin Miles) had a good strategy, (but) we managed to pull it out at the end.”
Lenox and Jones tied for scoring honors with 16 each, with Jones grabbing 12 rebounds to go with her three assists, six steals, and three blocks.
Larry added 10 points, six rebounds, and two assists. Johnson scored nine and pulled down eight rebounds before fouling out in the final two minutes.
In addition to her three points, Hudgins contributed three assists, three rebounds, and two steals.
Chipley freshman forward Kinsleigh Hunter led the Tigers with 17, and senior guard Cami Brown added 14.
Making their sixth Final Four appearance in the last seven years, the 18-7 Tiger Sharks were set to square off against the 18-4 Wildwood Wildcats on Wednesday, Feb. 23, in Lakeland.
This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct a misspelled name.