CHARLOTTE – A little more than a week ago, on Senior Night for the Hickory Ridge High School basketball teams, Ragin’ Bulls girls coach Tolonda Simmons looked at her players’ parents and made a declaration.
“Anything is possible,” Simmons told the team’s most ardent supporters as they gathered to honor Jadah Shears, Asia Lampe, Mia Braun and Martina Biondi in their final regular-season games in the Hickory Ridge gym.
It didn’t matter that the Ragin’ Bulls were wrapping up a fourth-place regular-season finish in the eight-team Southwestern 4A Conference standings.
It didn’t matter that their hopes for a state playoff berth were starting to look a bit tenuous.
And it didn’t matter that the league’s heavyweights would be waiting for the Ragin’ Bulls when they arrived at Myers Park High School the following week for the SW4A tournament.
All that mattered was that Simmons believed in what her young team was capable of as what she calls “the second season” arrived.
Most important, as she looked over her players, she believed that THEY believed it, too.
They certainly played like it.
On Saturday afternoon, the Ragin’ Bulls completed their best three-game stretch of the season at the most critical time of the year by defeating Independence, 43-36, before a raucous crowd to claim the SW4A tournament championship.
The Patriots had beaten Hickory Ridge twice during the regular season, as had the team it beat in the semifinals, league co-champion Matthews Butler.
The Ragin’ Bulls had already beaten their first-round foe, Mint Hill Rocky River, on two occasions earlier in the year, but the fact that they administered a 48-point beatdown to the Ravens on Tuesday shows just how focused and ready they were heading into tournament.
And now, the Ragin’ Bulls are champions.
Whether it was Simmons’ Senior Night talk or physical development or lessons learned from a hard-knock regular season, by Hickory Ridge standards anyway, the Ragin’ Bulls were playing their most complete brand of basketball thus far.
“(On Senior Night), I told the kids, ‘Lock in, and let’s go make a difference this week and take it one game at a time,’” Simmons recalled. “And that’s what we did, and it worked out.
“We just had different people stepping up every day that helped it all come together as a team win each day, getting these three wins this week.”
Against Independence Saturday, some familiar names jumped off the boxscore: Junior guard Kennedy Calhoun led Hickory Ridge by scoring 14 points to go with her five steals and two assists. Sophomore forward Jasmine Fearne scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out a pair of assists.
But then there were the Ragin’ Bulls whose names didn’t jump off the boxscore but were just as important to the victory. Especially against Independence, arguably the biggest team in the conference.
The 5-foot-9 Lampe and the 5-11 Maya Henry were key presences on the backboards while going against a Patriots squad that regularly plays three girls 6 feet or taller and two more standing 5-11.
That was a disadvantage that had severely hurt the Bulls in their last outing against Independence.
“Tonight, we did a good job on defense and boxing out,” Simmons said. “We just didn’t give up a lot of second shots – a lot of things that don’t show up for Maya and Asia in the boxscore. But they both did a good job. We did it as a team, but Maya and Asia on the big girls that Independence has, they just did a really good job.”
And there was a fluidity to the Hickory Ridge offense. Calhoun, the team’s point guard, attacked the basket when she needed to but kept the defense honest by diligently running the Bulls’ offensive sets and creating opportunities for others.
Lampe added six points and Henry five. And freshman guard Alyssa Lewis, who led the team with 18 points Friday night against Butler, had six points on Saturday, patiently taking opportunities when they came her way.
Hickory Ridge went into halftime with a 24-21 lead, and the Patriots’ size became more and more manageable for the Bulls as the game progressed.
“(Independence) might’ve had six or seven blocks early, and then we just continued to work the ball more and got better jump shots and better pull-ups instead of trying to get to the rim,” Simmons said. “In the second half, we had a couple transitions layups to create some easy shots for us.”
And there were some not-so-easy shots that mattered for Hickory Ridge, too, especially in the second half.
Fearne showed a deft touch on a key 3-pointer in the third quarter. But in the final period, she hurt her leg after getting tangled up with an Independence player and went to the bench.
Independence crept closer.
At that point, Simmons had a quick huddle with Fearne, who’s been the team’s second-leading scorer all season. It was time for some personal coaching.
“I always believe in challenging kids,” Simmons said. “I knew she might’ve been in some pain, but I didn’t think that she had actually injured herself. So I got up and walked down to the end of the bench and told her, ‘This is one of those times that great players step up and they make it happen, and we need you to do that right now.’
“I asked her if she could go, and she said, ‘Yeah.’”
Fearne grabbed a sip of water before walking back to the scorer’s table to check back in.
Shortly after she stepped onto the floor, the first time she touched the ball, Fearne knocked down a deep 3-pointer.
“That was a big momentum basket with about four minutes to go, because (the Patriots) had cut it back down to three,” Simmons said. “That was a big play by Jazz.”
Fearne also did a sound job defending standout junior Braylyn Milton, Independence’s top scorer at more than 18 points per game.
“We held her to eight,” Simmons said. “She had four in the first half and four in the second half. We were pleased with that effort.”
The Ragin’ Bulls’ SW4A tournaments performance earned them the 19th seed out of the West Region for the Class 4A state playoffs. They will be traveling to south Charlotte to face Ardrey Kell on Tuesday.
After Saturday’s championship, Simmons didn’t know which team Hickory Ridge would face.
“But I feel good about where we are right now,” she said. “We’ll be ready on Tuesday.”
Like Hickory Ridge, Ardrey Kell has a 16-11 record, and the Knights played a tough schedule featuring both in-state and out-of-state teams. In fact, Ardrey Kell defeated the Bulls, 56-45, back on Dec. 7 in a midseason game.
But as the Ragin’ Bulls, and their parents, now know after three days of glory at the Southwestern 4A tournament, anything is possible.
Hickory Ridge 9 15 11 8 – 43
Independence 2 19 4 11 –36
HICKORY RIDGE – Kennedy Calhoun 14, Jasmine Fearne 10, Burnett 2, Lampe 6, Lewis 6, Henry 5
INDEPENDENCE – Trinity Thompson 18, Milton 8, DiBenedetto 6, Flynn 2, Anderson 2