By Kim West
Tanner freshman forward Kirstin Brown shrugged her lanky shoulders as she softly summed up her team’s 39-28 loss to Red Bay in the Northwest Regional Tournament championship game on Saturday morning at Wallace State Community College’s Tom Drake Coliseum.
“It was a tragic loss, and that’s really all I can say,” said Brown after the game, as some of her stunned teammates wiped away lingering tears after a season in which the Rattlers won the Area 15 title and earned a spot in the regional finals for the fourth time since 2007.
Despite its Class 2A No. 7 ranking at the end of the regular season, Red Bay (32-3) entered the game as the favorite to play in this week’s Final Four in Birmingham.
Fifth-ranked Tanner (21-8), which had played in the state tournament two of the previous three seasons and won the 2A title in 2011, was coming off a dominating 58-49 victory against Cold Springs in Wednesday’s regional semifinals and had its sights set on a return trip to state.
But the Tigers used their “Four Corners” slow-down offense to dictate the tempo against Tanner, disrupting its offensive rhythm from the outset of the game. The Rattlers held a 40-18 rebounding advantage but shot a frosty 22 percent from the field.
“It was very difficult to get into the flow of the game, and we started the game very, very tight,” Tanner coach Larry Greene said. “I thought we would loosen up but we stayed tight and never got into a rhythm, offensively.”
Greene, who said after the game he would “completely decide” after spring break whether he would return for his 18th season on the Rattlers’ bench, said the game plan was to try and force Red Bay point guard Allie Kennedy to give up the ball to her front-line teammates, Darby Madden and Kasey Sparks, instead of passing the ball to the wings and perpetuating the Tigers’ stall tactics.
But Kennedy, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player with a game-high 14 points, kept breaking Tanner down off the dribble from the top of the key while also drawing fouls. Brown, who was an unstoppable force for Tanner under the basket and finished with a team-high 11 points and 10 rebounds, spent much of the game in foul trouble and had to sit out a key stretch of the third quarter.
Red Bay went to the free-throw line 23 times but kept Tanner in the game by making only 50 percent. A key to Tanner’s offense is drawing contact in the lane and getting to the charity stripe but the Rattlers were held to only 13 freebie attempts.
Red Bay led by as many as seven points in the first half but Tanner whittled it down to 17-14 at halftime on an 11-7 run, fueled by 3-pointers by Sydney Houston and Jessika Milton and a three-point play by Brown on the left block.
Tanner trailed only 27-22 after three quarters but Kennedy scored six points as Red Bay went on an 8-1 run to start the fourth, stretching the lead to 12 points with less than five minutes remaining.
Brown converted a pair of free throws at the 4:11 mark to trim the deficit to seven points, followed by Red Bay missing four of their FT attempts. However, Tanner never scored again as the Tigers reverted to their possession tactics to end the game at 37-28.
For the Rattlers, Jasmine Smith contributed seven points and eight rebounds, while Sydney Houston added four points, eight boards and three assists.
Brown and Kelsey Houston made the All-Tournament team, which also included Kennedy and Sparks.
Tanner loses four seniors in Smith, Sydney Houston, Latrece Leonard and Keyaira Cameron, who played nearly 3 ½ minutes in Saturday’s game despite tearing her ACL earlier this season.
“They were a team that listened and tried to do what you told them to do, and that was the most enjoyable part of coaching them,” Greene said. “I’m tremendously proud of their efforts this season, and this has been a great group to coach.”