Sometimes the nerves players who are making their first state tournament appearance have can hamper their performance, especially early in the game.
The Skyline Vikings bucked that trend to continue their historic season.
No. 3-ranked Skyline (29-5) overcame a few nerves with a blistering start and went on for a 58-36 win over St. Luke’s Episcopal of Mobile Monday in the Class 1A Girls Basketball State Tournament semifinals at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s Legacy Arena.
“We came in and made a few shots, got us going,” said Skyline senior point guard Caity Ledwell. “We kept pushing hard and kept the lead.”
The Vikings play No. 4 Phillips (25-10) in the Thursday’s 4 p.m. state championship game. Phillips defeated Westminster-Oak Mountain 66-48 in Monday’s other state semifinal game.
“Beginning of the year, this is what we tried to get ourselves to,” said Skyline head coach Ronnie McCarver. “We’ve been talking about it all year, if we could win that game at Jacksonville [Northeast Regional final vs. Spring Garden] we knew we’d have a chance to make it to the finals. These girls have really worked hard. Really proud of them. This is what we’ve been trying to work for all year.”
It’s the first state championship game appearance in school history for Skyline, which was playing in the state tournament for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
Skyline’s full-court pressure wreaked havoc on St. Luke’s (25-10), which committed 34 turnovers leading to 31 Vikings’ points. Skyline had 28 steals for the game, including eight in the first quarter that led to 12 points off turnovers as the Vikings built a 24-6 lead.
“It was a punch in the mouth,” said St. Luke’s head coach Bruce Pears of Skyline’s pressure and strong start. “They’re a good team. I think we were a little rattled in the beginning. We tried to bring it together as much as we could, but they’re a good basketball team. Definitely got to give them their props.”
Skyline’s hot shooting cooled off in the second quarter, allowing St. Luke’s to creep within 31-19 at halftime. But the Vikings wouldn’t allow a comeback, outscoring the Wildcats 20-9 in the third quarter. Bailee Usrey’s 3-pointer that beat the third quarter buzzer sent Skyline into the final frame with a 51-28 advantage.
“We had a lull… kind of stood around, let them get back in it,” McCarver said. “Next thing you know it’s 10 or 11, and [St. Luke’s] had got a little confidence. I told them if we didn’t come out in the third quarter and jump on them, it was going to end up being a ball game. We did a really good job scoring right off the bat.”
Aside from its second-quarter struggles, Skyline cruised to its seventh straight win.
“Everyone was on the same page,” said Skyline senior forward Madison Smith.
Usrey scored a game-high 25 points to go with go with three assists, five rebounds and six steals. Smith totaled eight points, 10 rebounds, four assists and eight steals and Gracie Stucky had eight points and nine rebounds while Alli McAllister had seven points and two steals, Lexie Stucky four points and three steals, Aidan Bellomy three points and Ledwell three points, six rebounds, two assists, one block and six steals.
Haley Patterson scored 12 points and Whitney Novak added 10 for St. Luke’s.
Skyline outrebounded the taller St. Luke’s 38-32 and attempted 21 more shots in part to 20 offensive rebounds.
The Vikings, who already have a set anew single-season school record for wins, get another chance to make school history on Thursday.
“It means a lot,” Usrey said. “At the beginning of the year, we kind of knew we had a chance to get this far. We’ve prepared for it a lot. I think we’ve worked really hard for this.”