By Robert Wilson
Photos by Brandon Jackson

​First-year Hartfield girls basketball coach Mark Alexander knows all about the success of Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s girls program and coach Stephen Force, who won his 700th career game earlier this season.

​Alexander – who was an assistant coach at MRA for eight seasons, his first two seasons with Force and the last six with Mississippi’s winningest boys coach Richard Duease before coming to Hartfield – knew it was important to get off to a quick start over Force and his talented team.

​But even Alexander was surprised when his team jumped out a quick 16-point lead on their way to a 47-41victory over MRA Friday night in the last conference game of the MAIS Class 6A regular season at MRA’s DueaseHall in Madison.

​“I really didn’t know what to expect going in because we had one starter (senior guard Avery Smith) leave school early sick and another (senior point guard Raegan Tucker) nursing a sore knee who hadn’t practiced the last two days,” said Alexander, whose team had lost to MRA 48-41 Jan. 24 at Hartfield. “Fortunately, we got off to a really good start, hit some shots. We let it get away from us in the second quarter and MRA made a huge run. Then they surged ahead in the second half. It wasn’t looking good, but our girls really stepped it up and made plays on both ends to help us win it. Our defense was the difference, particularly in the fourth quarter. We were able to force some turnovers and that led to some easy baskets. (Junior guard) Vail Wartes gave us some big minutes off the bench. She played some crucial minutes defensively in the fourth quarter.”

​Hartfield improved to 25-5 overall and finished 7-3 in conference play and is the third seed going into next week’s 6A state tournament at Presbyterian Christian School. Hartfield meets No. 7 seed Jackson Academy, 10-21 overall and 1-9 in conference play, in the first roundTuesday. Hartfield defeated JA in both meetings this season, 50-33 at Hartfield and 64-28 at JA.

​MRA dropped to 25-7 overall and finished 8-2 in conference play and is the second seed going into the state tournament. MRA gets a first-round bye and plays the winner of Hartfield and JA Friday.

​Smith and 6-foot junior forward Nyla Hooten led Hartfield with 11 points each.

​“Hartfield came out and played harder than we did to start the game,” said Force, who has 707 wins in 27seasons, the last 21 at MRA. “Letting a team jump on you 20-4 along with turning the ball over 20-plus times in no formula to win, especially against good teams like Hartfield. The team that played best tonight won the game.”

​MRA was led by 5-10 senior forward Cam Humphries – who has signed a beach volleyball scholarship with North Florida – with 13 points.