Jan. 27—TIFTON — Tift County's Lady Devils blew out another opponent Friday night and moved one step closer to hosting the Region 1-6A basketball tournament, a 60-32 decision over Thomas County Central.
The Blue Devils built a 15-point halftime lead, saw it evaporate in the 3rd, then ended with their latest heartbreaker, a 41-39 loss to the Yellow Jackets.
A young Tift boys team has had its share of 2nd half difficulties. Up 24-9 over the Jackets at the break, they still had a 12-point advantage, 31-19 at 4:30 after Kaiden Lawson scored on an assist from Malachi Evans.
But Thomas County Central soon found the touch from behind the arc. Three-pointers from Abe Smith, Quincy Anderson and Jermaine Dennis found the mark, Dennis' tying the contest at 31 at 1:03 in the 3rd.
The Devils regained the lead to end the frame, Lawson making a foul shot after being fouled on a put-back, but the momentum had switched.
Smith knotted the score at 34-34 a minute into the 4th. A tough shooting quarter for both schools saw TCC open as much as a five-point lead with three minutes left, 39-34. Tift finally broke their silence with a pair from the line by Evans, then Corey Howard made it a one-point game on an offensive rebound at 1:39.
The Jackets missed two from the stripe and Tift's McKyler Horne made it a 39-39 game with a single free throw with 54 seconds left.
Tift caught a break when Jaden Nelson forced a turnover at 0:31, but the Jackets got a steal, missed a shot, but got a put-back from Mantrel Mosley with 4 seconds to go. The Devils had a chance on an out-of-bounds play with 1.1 seconds showing, but could not get off a clean shot.
Perhaps Tift's best defensive effort in a half this season, saw them hold TCC to two field goals over the first 16 minutes. Smith opened the night with a triple, but the visitors were stuck with those three points for nearly nine minutes of clock, until Charlie Dunbar free throws at 6:27 in the 2nd.
In between, the Blue Devils built a slow lead, going up 5-3 on a three by Te'Shawn Bryant, turning it into an 11-point advantage on a drive by Evans that rolled forever in the cylinder before dropping through. Howard free throws made for a 16-3 lead after a quarter.
Fred White slipped through the defense for a 20-6 game in the 2nd. TCC's Dunbar made their second field goal at 1:02, a 3-pointer with Tift's Tristan Boone knocking down jumper for the Devils to have a 24-9 halftime advantage.
TCC's Smith had a game-high 14 points for the night.
Howard's 8 points led Tift, now 9-10. Boone contributed 7.
The Blue Devils are now 1-5 in 1-6A, their fifth place standing in danger of missing their first state tournament in decades. TCC is 3-2, currently in fourth place. Lee County, state runners-up last year, leads with a 6-0 record.
LADY DEVILS 60, TCC 32
What ended up a runaway was not for the first 14 minutes. Even Tift County head coach Julie Conner-Johnson had not been aware how close it was in the 2nd quarter.
At 7:07, Travesha Giddens dropped in her third consecutive basket, knotting the score 16-16.
After the game, Conner-Johnson could only react, "Oh, my" when told her team finished the game on a 44-16 run.
TCC entered with a 15-4 record, 2-3 in Region 1-6A, ranked No. 10 in 6A by MaxPreps. The top two teams, Tift and Veterans, are the only schools to have given the Lady Jackets any difficulties at all; the only other loss for them on the season was by six points.
Tift, No. 4 in 6A by MaxPreps and No. 6 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, is now 17-3, has won nine straight games, all by at least 11 points, and by an average score of 68-30. Thomas County Central was the first opponent to score at least 25 points in three weeks.
Thirty seconds after Giddens tied it up, Caitlyn Burgess made a 3-pointer off an assist by Jimmya Cushion. Exactly 30 seconds after that, Jalaya Miller hit a shot from behind the arc, this one off a pass by Makayla Bryant.
The run was ultimately 10 straight points before Jakayla Garland hit from the field. A free throw at 2:09 cut the lead to 26-19 and briefly made it a game again. However, Burgess knocked down back-to-back threes to end the period, the latter with a guard inches from her. Tift was up 32-19l
Giddens made a basket 60 seconds into the 3rd, but that was all the Lady Jackets got for almost seven minutes. In that span, Bryant made a pair of 3-pointers and Miller and Burgess scored as well to firmly put the contest in runaway status.
The quarter was so tough for the visitors that even when they thought they had the last shot, Bryant ruined those plans with a steal, flinging a pass to Cushion to beat the buzzer.
Bryant's hot shooting night saw her connect on her third triple in the 4th. A Burgess steal at 2:51 expanded the least to 32 points, 58-26, before threes from TCC's Auyanna Burkes and Harmonee Ross.
The night began in typical Tift fashion with a quick lead, the Lady Devils scoring the first six points on its press defense. Marcy Pearson had two threes for TCC to get close at 7-6 and, for 20 seconds, they had a lead at 8-7, courtesy of Giddens.
Miller led a 7-0 run for the Lady Devils to go ahead 14-8, with the score being 16-10 at the end of the period.
Four Lady Devils finished in double figures: Burgess at 21, Miller with 15, Bryant at 11 and Cushion at 10. Burgess is within 40 of scoring 1,000 career points. Cushion is now at 859 career points.
Giddens scored 10 to top the Lady Jackets, with Pearson at 9 points.
Tift was scheduled to travel to Sumter County Saturday night. The rest of the regular season are region games, at Veterans Jan. 30 and home versus Northside Feb. 2 before ending with two road games.