By Robert Wilson
Photos by Robert Smith

         Julia Stradinger won three state championships in cross country during her career at Jackson Prep. She can now add another state championship medallion to her trophy case.

         Stradinger’s defensive play, key baskets and last second free throws were major reasons why Prep defeated defending MAIS Overall Tournament champion Leake 37-34 for the Overall girls title before an estimated 2,500 fans at Mississippi College in Clinton.

         The 5-foot-7 senior forward’s ability to stay in front of Leake’s leading scorer Miriam Prince (she didn’t score until 3 minutes before halftime), Stradinger’s team-high 10 points and her free throws with 2 seconds to play were big for Prep.

         Class 6A state champion Prep finished 37-2, won its 15th straight game and won its first Overall girls title since 2006 and sixth in school history (Prep won four straight from 1979-1982). Prep was playing in its second girls Overall championship in the past three seasons. Prep lost to Pillow two years ago. Class 5A state champion Leake finished 37-4. Leake had defeated Prep 61-37 Dec. 11 in Madden to end Prep’s 15-game winning streak to start the season. Leake also defeated Prep 72-60 in the Overall quarterfinals last season at Leake. Leake is the only team to score more than 46 points on Prep all season and the 72 points in the Overall quarterfinals was more than any team last season.

         Prep slowed down Leake Wednesday night. It was the second lowest point total for Leake this season. Prep led 15-7 after one quarter and 23-17 at halftime. Prince – who made a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer – got rolling in the third quarter, scoring all eight of Leake’s points to cut Prep’s lead to 29-25 going into the fourth quarter. Then, Leake sophomore Katye Jones made a layup for a 30-29 Leake lead with 6:04 to play – Leake’s first lead since 2-0 – and Prince added two free throws for a 32-29 lead with 5:09 to play. But Prep junior forward Kennedie Sanders – who scored a career-high 10 points – made three shots in the lane to push Prep ahead 35-33 before Leake’s Allen Kaye Wilcox made one free throw to cut the lead to 35-34 with 22 seconds to play. Stradinger made her two free throws with 2 seconds to play, then Leake’s Morgan Freeny’s half court shot was off target at the buzzer.

         Prince finished with a game-high 18 points. Prep senior point guard and Alabama-Huntsville signee Andie Flatgard had 10 points, tying Stradinger and Sanders for the team high. Sanders, who scored her 10 off the bench in 17 minutes, came in averaging 3.7 points per game. Stradinger, a starter, had her 10 points in 21 minutes and came in averaging 3.5 points per game.

         “I thought our defense won us the game tonight,” said Prep coach Michael McAnally, who became only the second coach in MAIS history to win girls Overall titles at two different schools. McAnally won his first Overall at East Rankin Academy in 2010 (Carolyn Wallis won two Overall titles at Prep in 1979 and 1980 and one at Jackson Academy in 1984). “That has been our staple all year. We were determined not to let their wings get good looks on kickout threes. That is what killed us when we played in December. Our kids did a great job of executing a defensive game plan that was outside of our base defense.

         “I couldn’t be happier for our team and especially our seniors. They have been on a mission since their junior high days to win Overall their senior year. To see that come to fruition tonight in that atmosphere and with the stakes at hand, it’s one of the best moments of my coaching career.”

         McAnally, who won an Overall as a backup senior point guard at Prep in 1996, won his 603rd career boys and girls game in 21 seasons, with 173 wins in the last eight years at Prep.

“We seniors on the team have worked for four years to get here,” Stradinger said. “Going into our last game, we had a solid plan and I can truly say we were confident in each other and our ability to win. Our team chemistry has grown tremendously since that early Leake loss, and tonight it showed. Leake has been our long time rival, and there’s no one else we wanted to play in the Overall state championship. Losing to them early in the year and them ending our season last year was strong motivation. I think tonight we had more heart and grit than they did.” 

“Julia was incredible. From hitting two threes to her intense defense to her last two free throws, we would not have won without her,” Flatgard said. “But I think that also goes for every other player on our team. Josie’s (Duncan) buckets when we needed them, Olivia’s (Smith) impeccable defense, Madeleine’s (Black) interrupting shots under the goal, Kennedie’s huge step up in the second half. This win took every single person, and I could not be prouder of our team.”

“Prep got off to a hot start tonight, but I thought we did what we’ve done all year in those situations, and that’s raise our level of competitiveness and work our way back into the game,” said Leake coach Amanda Hatch, who was trying to win her second Overall in eighth season at Leake and seventh Overall for the school. It was the fourth time in the past five seasons Hatch has taken Leake to the Overall finals. Hatch has a 284-32 record at Leake and 401-94 record overall in 12 seasons, the first five at Prep. Hatch also won an Overall as a player as a junior in 1999 when Leake finished 46-0 under Doyle Wolverton, the winningest high school girls basketball coach in Mississippi history.

         “We picked up our defensive intensity in the second half and were able to get some stops and go on a run or two to cut into the lead and even take the lead. Overall, we did a great job defensively and on the boards, just had a few too many turnovers and missed opportunities on the offensive end. I love that my girls gave it their all and left everything out there on that court. I’m so proud of this team and what we were able to accomplish this season. Congratulations to Jackson Prep on a wonderful season.”

         Leake was on fire in its win over Prep in December, making 11 of 25 (44 percent) from 3-point range. They made only three 3-pointers tonight and one of those was Prince’s half-court shot at the halftime buzzer.

         “This time we shot 25% from 3 (3 of 12) and 50 percent from the free throw line (7 of 13),” Prince said. 

         The good news for Leake is it returns all six players next season who played Wednesday night.

         Said Prince: “We had the ball down 1 with 10 seconds to go against a senior laden, well coached team. We have no seniors. So we feel good.”