E.A. Sports Today

‘It’s unbelievable’

Weaver girls party like it’s 2004 after earning their first regional berth in 15 years to a venue a lot closer to home

By John Mitchell
For East Alabama Sports Today
WEAVER – Chants of “JSU!” rang out from an exuberant Weaver crowd as its girls reveled with the fans over the program’s first berth in the Regional Tournament since 2004 Monday night.
The Lady Bearcats withstood a furious late charge from Sylvania thanks to some sloppy play down the stretch to hang on to a 62-56 Class 3A subregion victory.
They now play Glencoe in their first regional game in 15 years Monday at Jacksonville State at a time to be determined. The Lady Jackets beat Locust Fork 56-55 on a buzzer beater after losing an 18-point lead.
The last time Weaver made the regionals, it played at Troy State – the result of a quirk in the state alignment map – and got to the Final Four. This time, they’re playing a lot closer to home.
“What a great night for Weaver basketball,” coach Gary Atchley said. “It’s unbelievable. Who would have thought this?”
Weaver overcame foul trouble from star guard Caleigh Cortez and center Trinity Pulliam, with the former playing most of the second half with four fouls and the latter fouling out in the fourth quarter. In fact, all five Weaver starters had at last four fouls when the game ended.
With Cortez sitting out chunks of the second quarter after picking up three fouls, and chunks of the third after picking up her fourth, it was up to her teammates to maintain the lead she had led them to. 
“Everybody just picked me up,” Cortez said. “They just picked up the pace and kept it going; they kept shooting, they kept rebounding. We played as a team tonight. As a whole.”
Cortez got off to a blistering start, shouldering the load for her team as she so often has throughout her senior season. She scored nine of the team’s 16 points in the first quarter, leading the Bearcats to a five-point lead.
After helping to extend the lead to 11 in the second quarter, Cortez picked up her third foul with 4:28 to play in the half, sending her to the bench for the remainder of the quarter. 

Atchley said that Cortez’s foul trouble “scared him to death,” but the valuable experience his team gained from her recent illness and other injuries to key players from a few weeks back helped the Bearcats not only preserve a lead with Cortez sidelined, but actually extend it. 
Thanks to seven second quarter points from sophomore Haley Homesley, including a big three right after Cortez went to the bench, Weaver extended its lead to 33-20 heading into the locker room. 
“Some people who hadn’t been making shots on a consistent basis made those shots tonight for them,” Sylvania head coach Kyle Finch said. 
Atchley couldn’t breathe easy for long, however, as Cortez picked up her fourth foul just over two minutes into the third quarter, sending her to the bench for the final 5:50 of the quarter. Once again, her teammates answered the bell, pushing their 12-point lead to 13 with Cortez out as they took a 47-34 lead into the final period. 
Senior Abby Gaines knew she had to put it on her shoulders with Cortez sidelined, hitting a big third-quarter 3-pointer to prevent any momentum from slipping toward Sylvania on her way to a 15-point night.
“Abby Gaines has been unbelievable,” Atchley said. “I can’t say enough about how well she’s played. She’s been the best shooter I’ve had all year. Even when she catches it from way out there I’m yelling for her to shoot it.” 
Cortez was able to avoid fouling out thanks in large part to some creative coaching, with Atchley pulling the old “switcharoo” as he called it, making as many offense-for-defense substitutions as he could to lessen the opportunities for her to pick up a fifth foul. It worked, as Cortez avoided picking up that fateful final foul, with her ball-handling and clutch play coming in handy when things took a precarious turn.
Trailing by 13 heading into the fourth, Sylvania forged a big rally, refusing to make things easy for the Lady Bearcats with the berth to JSU seemingly so well in sight. Leading 55-42 with just over three minutes to play, Weaver turned it over five consecutive times fueling an 8-0 Sylvania run to cut the margin to five with 1:49 to go.
Rams senior forward Bethany Davis led the charge, coming up with six of the eight points during the run on her way to a game-high 21 points.
“I never question this team’s character,” Finch said. “They always respond the way you want them to.”
That’s when Cortez stepped in to finally shut the door on the Rams, catching a long outlet pass and running out for a layup and then coming up with a steal on the next possession and sinking one of two free throws to seal Weaver’s trip to the Regionals. Cortez, despite her foul trouble, still led Weaver in scoring with 16 points. 
“The final two minutes were really nerve-racking,” Cortez said. “We just kept talking and had to calm down. When it gets like that, we start passing the ball really crazy, but we were finally able to get it controlled at the end.”
When the clock finally hit zero, the nerves that had plagued the Lady Bearcats down the stretch and caused some sloppy, uncharacteristic turnovers were replaced by the jubilation of having checked another box from their preseason goals, the most important one at that: winning the sub-regional and getting to JSU for the Regional Tournament.
“We’re making history,” Gaines said. “For us seniors, it means so much to get to accomplish our goals.” 
“We had three goals at the beginning of the year,” Cortez said. “Get 20 wins, host and win the area, and go to JSU. And now we’ve done all of them.”

Weaver 62, Sylvania 56
Leianna Currie 1 0-2 4, Kenadie Lee 0 1-2 1, Madison Farmer 2 0-0 5, Tyla Tatum 5 4-5 14, Makayla Bullock 4 4-9 12, Bethany Davis 7 7-13 21, Riley Wisner 0 1-2 1, Hanna Clifton 0 0-2 0. Totals 19 17-35 56.
WEAVER – Caleigh Cortez 6 4-9 16, Kiese Hubbard 1 0-0 2, Maleah Foster 0 1-4 1, Trinity Pulliam 4 2-4 10, Abby Gaines 4 6-8 15, Amira Carter 4 0-0 9, Haley Homesley 3 2-4 9. Totals 22 15-29 62.
Sylvania         11       9        14       22       –          56
Weaver          16       17       14       15       –          62
3-point goals: Sylvania 1 (Farmer); Weaver 3 (Gaines, Carter, Homesley). Fouled out: Lee, Pulliam. Total fouls: Sylvania 22, Weaver 22. Officials: Davis, Pretnar, Sheckles.

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