Cavalry comes too late in MA’s loss to Locust Fork
By Tim Gayle
BIRMINGHAM – It may turn out to be one of the most inspiring moments of the Alabama High School Athletic Association state basketball tournament, but it came too late to save Montgomery Academy.
Junior center Caroline Kirkham, diagnosed with a meniscus tear and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, limped onto the Legacy Arena court at the start of the fourth quarter, determined to prolong the Eagles’ season.
It didn’t work, but for a moment it looked as if it might.
Montgomery Academy coach Barry Fencher said after watching Kirkham in a pair of practices, he made the decision not to play her in Tuesday’s game but changed his mind at the end of the third quarter.
“She made up my mind, she told me she was ready to go,” Fencher said. “She said she wanted to give it a try. With her bringing us this far, I had to give her a shot.
“I’m kind of second thinking myself. I probably should have played her earlier. She came in and scored four quick points. The other post players, I can’t take anything away from them, but they’re not Caroline Kirkham.”
Kirkham’s four points were among the only highlights attributed to players other than Kayla White, who had a team-high 19 points and a team-high 10 rebounds, and Jade Brooks, who had 16 points and sparked the offense with three 3-pointers, the only long-range shots made by the Eagles.
Outside of Kirkham, White and Brooks, the rest of the team was a collective 1 for 12 and that came on a meaningless putback by Emily Tolar with 28 seconds left.
“I knew it was going to be a tough task for us when we lost our post presence, which I thought would be the determining factor,” Fencher said. “You could see the impact she made when I brought her in, in the third quarter. But any time you’re dealing with an ACL, it’s more about the player’s safety than trying to win the game.”
Up until that point, the Eagles had a game plan designed to be deliberate on offense and stifling on defense.
They battled back from an early deficit to tie the game on two occasions in the first quarter, then took a 14-12 lead moments into the second period on a pair of Margaret Head free throws.
“We finished some shots,” Locust Fork coach Barbara Roy said. “At halftime, we had talked about, coming into the game, that we had to really work hard on the boards and rebound and we were two rebounds down from them at halftime, which was huge that we were able to stay with them on the boards. We hit some outside shots in the second quarter that were big shots.”
Fencher said his team lost its poise during a crucial stretch in the second quarter in falling behind 33-19 at the half.
“We usually play our 1-3-1 zone but we got away from that because they’re just too good of shooters,” Fencher said. “We didn’t want to leave all those open shots. We wanted to control the tempo. And in the second quarter, we let it get out of hand. I don’t know if the girls got tired or forgot the game plan, but they kept losing their man. A team like that, you’ve got to stay close to them.”
Locust Fork (34-1) made just six 3-pointers in 21 attempts, but three of those came in a short burst in the second quarter.
“In the first quarter, I think our nerves were getting to us,” said Madison Cater, who had 10 points with the help of a pair of 3-pointers. “By the second quarter, we kind of relaxed and played our game.”
In the first part of the second quarter, the Eagles went through a stretch where they missed seven consecutive shots; in the latter half, they had five turnovers.
“We had our chances at the same time,” Fencher noted. “We’d miss them, they’d make them.”
“I feel like we didn’t really get on the shooters,” Brooks said. “We gave them wide-open layups to the basket.”
The 14-point lead was one Locust Fork maintained through the end of the third quarter when Fencher elected to listen to his best post player and let her play in the game.
“She came out and had a couple of good practices, but she was hurting – a whole lot – after we got through,” Fencher said. “She’s got a good career ahead of her. I don’t want to do anything to hamper her next year. She’s going to be the leader of this team.”
Kirkham underwent knee surgery on Wednesday as the Eagles were left to contemplate what might have been.
“In a game like that, with their size, I knew if she was healthy, she would have dominated that game,” Fencher said. “She’s just an impact player in the post.”
Instead, Montgomery Academy (29-5) left without the big prize despite an impressive run of four consecutive trips to the state tournament.
“I feel like in my five years here, getting here was definitely our No. 1 goal every year,” Brooks said. “Throughout the season, we had hard practices and practices where we didn’t want to practice but thinking back to the previous years, we just wanted to get back here. I’ll definitely appreciate that. And I’ll never forget it.”