Ronnie McCarver held the Class 1A Girls Basketball state championship trophy out and braced for impact.
Within seconds, the coach was mobbed by Skyline players eager to get their hands on the trophy that the program had waited 40-plus years for.
Top-ranked Skyline claimed its first state basketball championship thanks to a 54-41 win over No. 6 Marion County Friday afternoon at the Birmingham Crossplex’s Bill Harris Arena.
“I thought they were going to take me down,” McCarver said with a laugh.
Skyline (30-7) went wire-to-wire as Class 1A’s No. 1-ranked team, finishing 18-0 against 1A competition with every win being by double digits. The 30 wins are a Skyline girls basketball single-seasons school record.
“We’ve been counting down to this day,” said senior and state tournament MVP Gracie Stucky. “We’ve got a white board that every day (assistant coach) T.J. (Perry) would write down how many days were left (until the state championship game). Now it’s at zero and we won.”
The state championship is the first in any sport for Skyline High School.
“This was the expectation since the beginning of the year,” McCarver said. “I knew we had a really good squad. We expected to be here, we didn’t know who we would play or the circumstances, obviously, but we were aiming to be here. We started the year out working for this. And they really worked.”
The Vikings were making their second all-time state finals appearance. They lost to Phillips in the 2019 1A title game after leading by nine points in the fourth quarter.
“Two years ago, (losing in the finals) was the worst feeling,” Stucky said. “Didn’t want to feel that way again.”
Skyline made sure it would not.
The Vikings bolted to a 13-4 lead thanks in part to three Gracie Rowell 3-pointers in the first 4:21 of the first quarter.
“The first 3s we hit really got us going, helped the team, got the crowd in it,” Rowell said. “The crowd really helped us get going.”
The Vikings, who never trailed, pressured Marion County into seven first-quarter turnovers while building a 17-10 lead. Skyline led 24-18 midway through the second quarter before closing the first half on a 12-2 scoring run. Kenzie Manning’s basket started the run, before a jumper from Aidan Bellomy, two Lexie Stucky baskets and two free throws and a layup from Gracie Stucky sent the Vikings to halftime with a 36-20 lead.
Marion County (29-8) seemed to control the game in the third quarter, but the Red Raiders still were never able to get closer than nine and trailed 46-35 entering the fourth quarter. The Vikings opened the final quarter with a Rowell 3-pointer, then got a layups from Bellomy and Rowell to take their largest lead of 18 at 53-35 with 4:09 remaining in the game.
“We had our chance a couple of years ago and couldn’t hold it in the fourth quarter, and I kept worrying about that, hoping (Marion County) didn’t make two or three shots and get us back in the same situation,” McCarver said. “But it worked out good. I knew if we shot the ball good we were going to be OK, because I knew we could guard them. These girls are always going to play good defense.”
Skyline held Marion County to only 33% shooting (16-of-48) and scored 18 points off of 23 Red Raider turnovers.
“It was a game that I expected it to be. They (Skyline) shoot the ball very well. A very well-coached basketball team. Better than I thought they were. I thought they were just a 3-point (shooting) team, but they got to the hole (and) picked our zone apart,” said Marion County coach Scott Veal, who was Phillips’ coach during when Phillips defeated Skyline in the 2019 1A finals. “I think they played how we play by speeding the game up. I think our nerves were bad today and we realized where we were. We forced some things. The speed of the game changed us.”
Gracie Stucky finished with 19 points, six rebounds and three assists for Skyline while Rowell had 17 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three blocks and five steals. Bellomy totaled six points and three rebounds, Lexie Stucky had six points and seven rebounds, Kenzie Manning had four points and two rebounds and Blakely Stucky had two points, three assists and two steals.
Serenity Metcalfe was Marion County’s lone scorer in double figures with 18 points.
McCarver became just the third coach to have won both an AHSAA girls and a boys state championship. He coached Section to a Class 1A boys title in 2003.
“That’s living the dream,” said McCarver, who is 21 wins shy of 800 for his career. “Really happy for these girls. I’ve really enjoyed coaching this bunch of girls. It’s been really fun.”
McCarver praised Skyline’s two seniors, Bellomy and Gracie Stucky, for their contributions and leadership.
“The things they’ve done for Skyline basketball is unbelievable,” he said. “We’re going to miss them so much. Every day they came and gave you the same thing, everything they had, every day, no matter what. If the younger girls picked up on that, we’ll be OK.”
With just over a minute remaining and the outcome having been decided, both teams’ starters left the floor. For the second time in her career, Bellomy walked off the court in a state finals game in tears. But this time, those were tears of joy.
“No better feeling,” Bellomy said. “This is what we’ve worked for all year, all the practices, all the extra practice stuff we did. It’s all paid off.”