Fourth-quarter stretch leads MA girls past St. James

St. James guard Hannah Grace Griggs loses ball with defensive pressure from Montgomery Academy's Gabby Ramirez (24), Leighton Robertson (4) in Friday's area matchup.

With eight minutes remaining in Friday night’s area matchup between Montgomery Academy and St. James, the Trojans needed a basket to cut into a five-point deficit. Even a shot at the basket would have been a start.

Instead, the Eagles’ stifling defense kept St. James from getting close enough to take a shot for more than three minutes and more than another minute passed before Mallie Taylor finally scored. By then, a 14-point deficit was too much to overcome and the Trojans fell 49-40 in the area opener for both teams at Joe Mooty Court.

“There was about a five-minute stint in the fourth quarter that was a game changer,” St. James coach Katie Barton observed, adding that there were brief lapses throughout the game that cost her team, including one early in the game where a 10-3 lead quickly turned into an 11-10 deficit.

“I think we played good basketball for 24 minutes,” she noted. “It’s just where my girls are at right now. (Montgomery Academy) is a good team and apply a lot of pressure. They’re relentless. We just have to get better during those eight minutes. It’s early in the season and we’re just going to take it one game, one practice, and try to get better. I was proud of our 24 minutes but we’ve got to fix the other eight.”

The Eagles did it without help from the perimeter – MA was 0 for 6 from the 3-point arc – and with a decided advantage at the free-throw line that could have led to a wider margin had MA not hit just 19 of 34 attempts from the line.

“In the second half, we did what we needed to do,” Montgomery Academy coach Barry Fencher said. “In the first half, I think we put too much emphasis on this being an area game. We missed a bunch of layups in the first half, I don’t know if it was nerves or trying so hard. The effort was there, we were just missing the layups.”

The opening minutes of the fourth quarter, as it turned out, were the determining factor in the area battle because Montgomery Academy’s pressure led to several layups on the other end.

“We knew to put constant pressure on them,” Fencher said. “They don’t really have a lot of depth. We do at the guard spot. We’re usually a second-half team because of our depth.”

Leighton Robertson was one of those key defenders, finishing with 12 points (including six in the fourth quarter), along with six steals and five rebounds.

“Leighton is our energy girl,” Fencher said. “Just like Margaret (Head) is our energy person under the goal, Leighton is at the top of our press. She makes so much happen.”

Millie Stevenson led Montgomery Academy (14-2) with 16 points and four steals, including eight points in the fourth quarter. Head had nine points, five steals and eight rebounds, while Gabby Ramirez had seven points.

Ashley White had 15 points to lead St. James, including eight in the third quarter to keep the game close entering the fourth quarter. Taylor had 13 points, including eight in the fourth quarter.

St. James (11-5) will try to snap a three-game losing skid with a crucial area game at Pike Road on Tuesday. MA travels to Bullock County for an area game on Tuesday.