ALJ gets buzzer-beating 3 to knock off Linden in Area 4 finale

photo 2LINDEN — Eighth grader Akayla McGhee drained a three-pointer at the buzzer Thursday night to put A.L. Johnson over Linden 60-58 in the Class 1A, Area 4 girls tournament.

“It was a good shot and that was a big time step up for Akayla,” ALJ coach Danielle Sanders said of the game’s climactic moment.

Linden controlled the game for much of the night, going on a 13-3 run to carry a 13-7 lead out of the first quarter and then stretching it to 32-27 by half. The Lady Patriots flirted with pulling away, leading by nine at various points throughout the second half.

With 2:55 to go in the contest, A.L. Johnson took its first lead since the opening moments when McGhee stole the ball off an inbound pass and fed it to Dinecia McGhee, who hit the layup to put ALJ up 50-49.

“It seemed like we wanted it more so we went and got it. We had to take it home,” Akayla McGhee said of the defensive effort that sparked the ALJ comeback. That effort appeared to be fueled by the defensive tenacity of Barber, who spent most of the second half deflecting passes and pestering ball handlers.

“That was the turnaround of the game,” Sanders said. “Once she started defending the ball, stopping the ball and deflecting passes, I knew it was going to be the turnaround in the game. The team feeds off Tiffany. When Tiffany goes, the team goes.”

“My mentality was to win all through the night,” Barber said. “We’ve got to win, got to play hard. If we want it, we’ve got to go get it. That’s how I felt. We played with heart.”

With 2:45 remaining, Jameia Jones committed a similar act of thievery and dished it to Tiffany Barber for the layup and a 52-49 Lady Eagle lead.

Exactly one minute later, Tomysha Boykin drained a triple for Linden to knot the game at 52 apiece. ALJ took the lead again seven seconds later when Akayla McGhee dropped in a layup for the 54-52 lead.

With 1:22 left on the clock, Crystal Jones collected a rebound and connected on a put back to tie the game again.

A Barber drive with 1:10 to play gave ALJ a 56-54 lead before Imiya Agee answered with a layup of her own to tie it once more.

Amber Robertson gave Linden a 58-56 lead with 23 seconds to play. That lead appeared to be preserved when Barber missed the back end of a 1-and-1 with only nine seconds to play. The ball caromed off the rim and into the arms of Crystal Jones, who took it all the way to the top of the opposite key before the officials signaled a traveling violation with only two seconds to play.

“I just knew. I just believed in them. I told them you can’t coach heart. You’ve got to have heart.,” Sanders, who opted not to call timeout in the situation, said. “You’ve got to keep on believing, keep pushing and good things can happen.”

With ALJ’s leading scorer Barber hassled by multiple defenders throughout much of the night, the ensuing inbound pass went to Akayla McGhee on the left wing.

““I had faith when she pulled it,” Barber said of the final moment of the game.

“Coach told me to go to the ball. I just threw it up and prayed to hit it,” Akayla McGhee said. “I felt like Lebron.”

As the shot flushed through the net, A.L. Johnson players and fans rushed the floor.

“I’ve been telling her all season long that she’s just an eighth grader but she is going to have to grow up fast,” Sanders said of the middle school student’s shinging moment. “So I’ve been telling her that nobody can stop you, the only person that can stop you is you.”

Sanders utilized only six players on the night with junior Ashley Lewis serving as the only reserve to come off the bench. Following the contest, Akayla McGhee received treatment for leg cramps while other players were visibly limping through the celebratory scene.

“I told them you can’t get tired. They love the song by Kevin Gates ‘I Don’t Get Tired.’ You can’t get tired. You can rest tonight after the game,” Sanders said.

The Lady Eagles saw Barber take home tournament MVP honors with a 21-point performance. Akayla McGhee finished with 17 points while LaRobyn Harris scored 12 on the night.

Boykin paced Linden with 27 points while Agee added 12. Crystal Jones and Robertson each scored eight.

Both teams advance to the sub-regional round. A.L. Johnson will host the loser between Georgiana and J.F. Shields while Linden travels to face the winner of that game.