PCA stuns MA girls to advance to state tournament

Makenna Simpson lifts Avery Rogers in the air as the Prattville Christian Academy Panthers storm the Garrett Coliseum court in celebration after their upset of Montgomery Academy on Tuesday.

All week, Prattville Christian coach Jason Roberson practiced the Panthers under a pair of scoreboard clocks that read “4.6,” the average margin of loss to Montgomery Academy in five games this season.

“That’s two possessions, maybe three,” said the Panthers’ leading scorer, Ella Jane Connell. “That kind of put it in perspective, that even though they came out with a win the last five times, we were right there with them. It just comes down to heart and who could play the hardest in this particular game.”

Montgomery Academy, which had won all five of the previous meetings between two of the best 3A teams in the state, stumbled when it counted most, turning the ball over four times in the final minute and losing to the Panthers 57-56 in the Southeast Regional championship game at Garrett Coliseum on Tuesday afternoon.

Prattville Christian (26-6) will face the winner of the Susan Moore-Lauderdale County game in the 3A semifinals at Birmingham’s Bill Harris Arena on Monday at 9 a.m. Montgomery Academy ends the season at 26-3.

“It’s a shame that we can’t both go to the final four,” Roberson said. “There are a lot of other good teams, too. We’ll play the Northwest Region and it’s loaded, 3A is loaded. But that (MA) team right there has lost to Trinity, to the No. 2 ranked team in 7A, Vestavia Hills, who is still alive, and now us. That’s it. Montgomery Academy has an unbelievable girls’ basketball team and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them. They made us better this year.”

There was nothing magical about Tuesday’s outcome, nothing different from the previous five meetings except the name of the team on the winning side of the ledger. After a shooting clinic from Chloe Johnson gave the Eagles a seven-point lead entering the fourth quarter, it looked as it Montgomery Academy would make it six for six.

“We’re down seven going into the fourth quarter, it doesn’t look good,” Roberson admitted, “but our ladies grew up throughout the year. Every game has been like that, it’s been a possession or two. And they have players who have stepped up and made the plays. We had ladies that were trying to, but I just think it took us this whole season to make the plays when it counted the most.”

If the third quarter belonged to Johnson, the fourth quarter was all Connell. The PCA standout scored nine of her 23 points in the fourth quarter, scoring the first five to help rally her team within a basket, then two jumpers in the lane in the final minute that gave her team a 56-54 lead with 30 seconds left.

“I just try to do my part for the team,” she said. “If they need a few points, I just try to get some.”

“When she’s on your team, you always feel like you have a chance, no matter the situation,” Roberson said. “She lives for moments like this.”

But it isn’t like Connell hasn’t played the same way in the previous meetings. The difference this time was the seasoned, experienced Montgomery Academy team that had a pair of turnovers on inbounds plays, then had Leighton Robertson drive to the goal for a layup like so many in the past that simply rimmed out and was rebounded by PCA’s Hannah Jones.

“We know they’re good and we have to play well to beat them,” Montgomery Academy coach Reg Mantooth said. “In the fourth quarter, we didn’t necessarily play our best. We had a hard time stopping Ella Jane, which we always have a hard time stopping her. Probably the key was we had a two-point lead and the ball twice with a minute and a half or so to go and turned it over twice.”

In the final two minutes, until Johnson drove the lane for a basket and a timeout to draw within 57-56 with 2.3 seconds left, Montgomery Academy went 0 for 2 from the field with five turnovers.

PCA, trailing by two points to begin that stretch, had a turnover, went 1 for 6 from the free-throw line and 2 for 4 from the field, with Connell’s two baskets providing the difference.

“We just knew we had to play until the final buzzer,” Connell said. “I was confident the whole time, but I don’t think there was a point where I particularly thought we had it in the bag.”

Not until MA’s final in-bounds play, which Johnson caught at midcourt, dribbled clear of a defender and threw up a 40-foot shot at the horn that was right of the mark, touching off a wild celebration from the PCA bench.

“A lot of relief,” Connell explained. “They’re a really good team and they earned a lot this season, but it felt super good to finally know they’re behind us and we got over the hump.”

Chelsea Mulliner added 11 points for PCA. Johnson led MA with 20 points and nine rebounds, followed by Robertson with 13 points and six rebounds.

For Montgomery Academy, the loss brings to a close the high school careers of Julia Williams, Robertson, Madi Caddell, Anaya Thomas, Gabby Ramirez and Ann Cobern Chapman, six players who played an integral role in leading the Eagles to the 3A finals in 2019 and fought in vain to return to the state tournament the last two years.

“Even losing those six seniors, I think we’ll be even better (next year) than people expect us to be,” Mantooth said, “just because of the things they’ve done in practice and the foundation they’ve laid.”