Aside from a thrilling finish to the girls' championship game in the annual Best of Preps basketball tournament, the folks who packed the gym Saturday night at Chattanooga State also witnessed what could be the beginning of the city's next elite program.
It wasn't just that Baylor's girls, with three freshmen and one sophomore in the starting lineup, rallied to claim the program's first victory over Cleveland, but the way the Lady Red Raiders accomplished it that foretells of greater things.
Baylor showed signs of maturing by fighting back after trailing for much of the fourth quarter, sending the game into overtime when freshman point guard Kaleigh Clemons split the Cleveland defense for a layup with two seconds remaining. From there, the Lady Red Raiders continued to overcome inexperience with hustle and flashes of the type skill that should mean more hardware in the coming years, on their way to a 39-35 victory.
Clemons, who scord 14 of her team-high 17 points in the second half and calmly made three of four free throws in the final minute of the fourth quarter, was named the tournament MVP. Fellow freshman Jazmine Simpkins was also selected to the all-tournament team.
Because of the tournament format, Baylor won three games in as many days, which should acclimate the team to the postseason tournament when playing in consecutive days is the norm. In beating East Hamilton by two in their tournament opener, then pulling away from Cleveland in the title game, all with a roster loaded with first-year players, the Lady Red Raiders now go into the heart of their region schedule with confidence that they can compete against anyone.
"I want to teach and coach, not beg and plead with kids to want to play and hustle," Baylor coach John Gibson said. "That's the great thing about the team we have this year: These kids want to be really good and are willing to work for it. I can't tell you how exciting that is as a coach to come to practice every day knowing that."
Gibson, who is in his eighth season as Baylor's coach, admitted when he looked in the crowd and saw a few former players that his mind flashed back to the first game of his head coaching career, a 66-16 loss to Cleveland.
"I've told some of those kids that they were the ones who were the foundation for what we wanted to build," Gibson said. "We wouldn't be where we are now as a program if not for the kids who put in the work every year that I've been there, helping us build it up."
Baylor has evened its overall record at 7-7, rebounding from two consecutive losses to defending state champions as well as narrowly losing in the championship game of another holiday tournament at Hilton Head, S.C.
Two juniors and a senior who are more noted in other sports also have become key contributors. Marci Carter is an all-state soccer player, while Kate Kaufman won the state title in the pole vault last year and Precious Birdsong is an all-state softball player who has committed in that sport to Middle Tennessee State University.
"Those girls don't have to work as hard as they do in practice or games for us," Gibson said, "because they already have proven themselves in other sports and their future is probably in those other sports. But they set the tone for us and they are all great leaders and have taught the young kids what it takes to reach that next level as competitors.
"There's no question that winning this tournament will do wonders for their confidence. You can see this team growing up every day in practice and every game we play, but especially to come back and win a game like this against a quality opponent. This group has a lot of talent and they show up ready to work and get better every day in practice, so we're hoping for good things for a while. I think winning this tournament might be the boost they need."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...