ALEXANDRIA – More than anything Denham Springs High School coach Blake Zito didn’t want to let go.
Not his first team and especially his first senior class at the school that will forever hold a special place in Zito’s heart.
That’s what made the finality of the season so difficult to deal with, watching ninth-seeded Captain Shreve go into overdrive in the second half to pull away from sixth-seeded Denham Springs 66-57 in Saturday’s Class 5A state championship game at Rapides Parish Coliseum.
“I wanted it for these ladies really bad,” said Zito, choking back tears several times during his postgame news conference. “They gave me everything.”
It was the second trip in three years to the state championship for Denham Springs, which was attempting to win the school’s second-ever crown.
The Lady Jackets (28-6) provided an early glimpse they were on target to meet their season-long objective, taking advantage of Captain Shreve’s foul trouble to build a 24-20 halftime lead.
“We had them where we wanted as far as foul trouble in the first half,” Zito said. “We played a clean defensive game and then because you’re not getting rebounds or making shots, you get a little wild on defense and they took advantage of that. Give them credit.”
Captain Shreve (27-4), which finished the season with 25 consecutive wins to capture its first state title, tied the game at 28-28 before taking the lead for good (30-29) on Jailia Redd’s driving layup at the 4:34 mark of the third quarter.
The Lady Jackets were beginning to encounter foul difficulty of their own and during a two-minute stretch watched Kate Thompson and Desiree Jones sidelined together for the last three minutes with four fouls apiece.
“At the beginning we were outrebounding them and that was really big,” Thompson said. “You get the two tallest girls in foul trouble, then they were able to get more offensive rebounds and they ended up scoring.”
Captain Shreve’s defense continued to hound point guard Alexius Horne, regularly and sent two defenders at her once she crossed midcourt and disrupted Denham Springs’ offense.
The Yellow Jackets were limited to 2 of 9 shooting and wound up scoring nine points in the quarter.
“It kind of threw things off, getting us out of our game,” said Horne, who finished with a game-high 25 points. “We missed open layups. At the end of the day, we’ve been through it. People have already done that to us. It was no different.”
Conversely, Captain Shreve heated up from the perimeter and took a 38-33 lead into the fourth quarter when the game’s MVP, guard Aaliyah Stevenson came alive.
After a scoreless first half, Stevenson scored 12 points on the strength of three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter with her third 3-pointet capping a 18-8 run going back to the end of the third quarter for a commanding 51-39 lead.
Stevenson was one of four double-digit scorers along with Kennedi Heard (17), Kiayra Ellis (13) and Addison Martin (12).
“They’ve got a lot of shooters, you’ve got to pick and choose,” Zito said. “We thought 23 (Stevenson) was probably the weakest of the shooters. You can call me crazy and I agree with that now. She was able to hit big shots and she deserves all of the credit.”
Captain Shreve, who outscored Denham Springs 46-31 in the second half, pushed their lead to 56-41 with 3:34 to play which included the disqualification of Jones with 3:12 to play with five fouls.
Facing an uphill battle, Lady Jackets began fouling to send the Lady Gators to the free throw line in hopes they would miss.
Captain Shreve went 14 of 20 from the line during that time and offset a spectacular effort from Horne, who scored 12 points in the last 2:42 of play.
Thompson added five of her 15 points to go along with her team-high 12 rebounds.
“That was it, the tale of two halves,” Zito said. “We got them into foul trouble in the first half, we were able to get to the free throw line and make some shots. I thought we handled the pressure.”
Denham Springs stopped a couple of long droughts and regained its momentum right before halftime for a 24-20 lead going into the locker room.
Captain Shreve, which had only made 3 of its first 16 shots, rallied from a seven-point deficit midway through the second quarter to pull even at 18-18 with 1:46 remaining.
Just before that Jala Robinson made two free throws to halt a more than three-minute stretch without a point and after lengthy possession, Horne spotted Trenishia Muse near the baseline for a short field goal – ending a 0-for-7 stretch with their first basket in more than five minutes.
Captain Shreve took its first lead of the game at the 5:40 mark of the third quarter on Heard’s 3-pointer for a 28-26 edge when Robinson tied the game for the second time with a put back at the 5:15 mark – the Lady Jackets final field goal of the quarter.
“They’re an amazing group,” Zito said. “I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss 31 (Horne), I’m going to miss 35 (Jones). We have two seniors (Natalie Stewart and Emily Sutton) that never played that much, and they did their role. They were great teammates. That’s what special about team sports. This team showed that.”