image and article from CommercialAppeal.com
They earned the right to shed a few tears. They earned the right to act a little silly, to wear their commemorative caps proudly. They also earned the right to be called champions.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Nina Davis
and Danielle Ballard
each scored 21 points Saturday to lead Central High to a 72-59 victory over Murfreesboro Riverdale at the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.
The championship is the first for a Memphis-area AAA team since 1985, when Melrose accomplished the feat. According to the TSSAA record book, Central's last state title came in 1922.
"I just thank God after all we've been through," said junior Aailyah Whiteside. "It just feels so good to have it."
Added Davis, "This is something that I've been wanting since I was a little kid. I'm just trying to catch all my emotions right now."
The Warriors (29-9) won the championship on the same court where former Central star Tina Stewart played. Stewart was fatally stabbed, and her MTSU roommate charged a week and a half ago. Stewart was laid to rest Saturday in Memphis and coach Niki Bray made the drive back, returning in time to coach her team.
She said it's the fifth time in the last 10 days she's made the trip.
"I went from crying this morning to feeling amazingly calm," she said. "I tell these girls if you work hard and do things the right way, good things will come. Hard work does pay off.
"I just prayed so hard. If we hadn't won this game, what would I tell them?"
Ballard, who made a pair of free throws with one second left to cap her big game, was overcome with tears while on the line. She said she was thinking not only of Stewart, but of Central student William "Peanut" Bibbs Jr., who was shot to death in December.
"I was just thanking Tina, thanking Peanut," said Ballard, who connected on 2-of-3 3-pointers and added 10 rebounds. "I'd known him since middle school. He was my best friend."
As if that wasn't enough, Bray lost her 29-year-old sister-in-law to breast cancer last June and the team also had to deal with the death of junior forward Jalen O'Bannon
's father within the last 12 months.
On Saturday, O'Bannon contributed 11 points and five rebounds to help Central defeat a Riverdale team that entered with a 34-1 record, including a two-point victory over Central in Murfreesboro back in January.
"That's the last time I saw (Tina)," said Ballard. "She just told me to keep working hard."
Bray said the kindness of Riverdale helped her team immensely during its stay in Murfreesboro.
"They honored Tina by wearing T-shirts," she said. "They let us use their gym for shootarounds. The hospitality we've been shown here has just been amazing. I told (Riverdale coach) John (Wild) before the game, there would be no losers (Saturday)."
Central trailed by two, 47-45, heading into the final quarter. But two buckets in transition by Whiteside helped Central build a 57-51 lead that the Lady Warriors gradually stretched out over the final few minutes. Central outscored Riverdale 27-12 in the fourth quarter.
led Riverdale with 20 points before leaving the court on a stretcher after colliding with Whiteside while chasing a loose ball in the fourth quarter.
It appeared as though she had gotten poked in the eye, but Wild said after the game that his player was being treated for a concussion.
Riverdale's Shacobia Barbee
, who was named Class AAA Miss Basketball after the game, had 16 points and 12 rebounds.