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By Robert Wilson

       After losing all three meetings to the Simpson Academy girls this season, Leake Academy coach Amanda Hatch spent hours trying to figure out how her girls could win when the two teams played each other Friday afternoon in the MAIS Class 5A state semifinals.

       Said Hatch: “It just came back to; we don’t do anything different. We just have to do it better.”

       And better they did. Much better.

       Leake played with more energy, tougher defense and shot well enough to defeat Simpson 46-39 at Pillow Academy in Greenwood.

       Leake improved to 34-5 and goes for its third straight state championship against Brookhaven Academy, 38-3 and winners of 16 straight games, including a 59-49 win over Pillow Friday afternoon in the other semifinal, on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. at Pillow. The two teams have not played this season. Both Leake and Brookhaven advance to next week’s Overall Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton. Simpson, which dropped to 31-5, meets Pillow Saturday at 1 p.m. for third place. The winner advances to Overall. The loser is finished for the season.

Simpson had beaten Leake by 12, 5 and 4 points this season – even ending Leake’s 70-game home winning streak Jan. 24 with a 49-45 victory, the first time Leake had lost at home in five seasons and the first time Simpson coach Linda Dear had defeated Leake at home in her 20 seasons as Simpson’s coach. Hatch was determined to have a different result in the fourth meeting.

“I racked my brain, I watched a million films for hours, I’ve got round and round. What do we do,” Hatch said on the postgame interview on Kicks96 livestream. “What do we do different? It just came back to, we don’t do anything different. We just have to do it better. I thought today we just did it better defensively, we played lockdown defense the first quarter and a half. They finally made a couple of shots late in the second quarter. We dominated the first half. We were making shots on the other end. We did what we do better than the previous three times we played them. Simpson has great shooters and we talked about we had to adjust, play good one on one defense, and stay with your girl. Get a lot of help on the 3-point shooters. They broke free a little bit in the second half.

“My girls were pretty much self-motivated. I had to just make sure they showed up on time. These seniors wanted this so bad. It was all on them. They knew what they had to get done. They did it and led the others to do it too. I’m super proud of my senior group.”

Leake led 9-7 after one quarter, 21-18 at halftime and 39-30 after three quarters. Senior guard Morgan Freeny led Leake with 13 points. Senior point guard Miriam Prince – who missed 22 consecutive games with complications from surgery this past summer – and senior guard Emeri Warren had 10 points each.

“I’ve been thinking about this game and getting ready for it,” said Freeny, who made back-to-back 3-pointers early in the third quarter to give Leake the lead. “It all starts with defense. I’m more of a defensive player and my slash sister Miriam is more of an offensive player. We work well together.”

Prince – the 2022 MAIS Class 5A Player of the Year, missed two and half months and received a steroid shot several weeks ago and played for the first time Feb. 2 against Lamar and had 26 points. But she still isn’t close to 100 percent.

“I’m not completely the same as I was, but I told everybody I want to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Prince said. “Whether it was Red’s (Freeny’s) defense or Lefty (Warren) getting her shot or (sophomore) Marleigh (Myers) or (sophomore) Caroline (Cheatham) coming into to make a big play, we all committed to this game. I don’t know anybody that likes to lose three times to a team. We have been motivated all week. The younger classmen have been hyping us up. It’s been really big for me to be that they were so fired up for us. That helped fuel us to get the win today.”

Simpson was led by senior Olivia Banes with 11 points.

“We picked a bad day to play a bad game,” Dear said. “We only shot 28 percent from the field and were 3 of 11 from the free throw line and we turned the ball over 12 times. All of that can be attributed to Leake’s aggressive defense. Give all the credit to Leake. They punched us in the mouth early and we just didn’t respond. I’m proud of my girls. We plan to regroup and come back strong tomorrow against a great Pillow team.”