LAWRENCEVILLE — It’s not difficult to track the turning point of the Gwinnett County middle school girls basketball championship game between McConnell and Pinckneyville.
Trailing by four midway though the second quarter, the host Tigers found their stride on the boards and in transition.
Combined with a much better stroke shooting free throws in the fourth quarter and it was enough to help McConnell pull away for a 52-41 victory Tuesday night at Archer High School.
Mearah Whitehead scored 15 points, while Kyndall Collins added 14 and Amiya Porter chipped in 11.
But it was a much broader range of contributions that helped the Tigers finish off a perfect 17-0 record by topping Pinckneyville (17-1) for the second straight season in the title game.
“Since I’ve been at Archer, we’ve won a ton of basketball games in the girls program,” McConnell coach John Meme said. “It’s just God blessing us with great girls and great talent. There are very few move-ins, which is kind of crazy to have that much talent right there in your school. So it’s been a blessing. They’re the greatest girls to work with.”
There was plenty of work to do when McConnell found itself down 13-9 with 4:34 left in the second quarter before the trio of Collins, Porter and Whitehead began to go to work on both ends.
“Mainly, it was just our (extra) effort and how we all worked together,” Collins said on her team’s rally. “We just wanted it really bad. It was all about heart.”
Collins and Whitehead controlled the boards, while Porter ignited the McConnell transition game and managed to penetrate the Pinckneyville defense.
And when Porter found Collins in the lane with a lob for layup with 3:13 left in the half, the Tigers had pulled even at 13-all.
Back-to-back stickbacks by Collins and Whitehead ended an 8-0 run that vaulted McConnell in front before Pinckneyville rallied for four late points on buckets by Jania Akins and Jordyn Walker to send the game into intermission knotted at 17-all.
Porter helped McConnell pick up the pace with a pair of fastbreak baskets early in the this quarter to lead an 8-2 run over the opening 4:47 of the third quarter to take a 25-19 lead following a layup by Collins off a nice feed from Whitehead.
But Pinckneyville refused to quit, with Akins hitting a 3-pointer with 2:26 left in the quarter to bring the Blue Devils back to within three before Collins answered with another layup with 1:32 left to send McConnell into the fourth quarter with a 27-22 lead.
That’s when the Tigers began to attack the basket and get to the foul line and convert, something they didn’t do in the early going.
“The first half, we missed several free-throw opportunities,” said Meme, whose Tigers were just 3-for-10 from the line in the first half. “That hurt us. We go into halftime tied up, and we should’ve been up about five with all the free throws missed. … Anybody who knows basketball knows in a game like that, it’s going to come down to free throws, and that kept our lead.
“If we would’ve been choking on those free throws like we did in the first half, that lead would’ve shrunk in a hurry. So that was huge.”
Indeed, the Tigers heated up considerably after Jadyn Jenks’ driving layup 1:09 into the fourth quarter to contribute to her game-high 19 points and extend the lead to 29-22.
Jenks and Whitehead combined to go 3 of 4 from the line over the next two possessions to push the McConnell lead to double digits at 32-22 with 5:23 left.
But Pinckneyville had one more run left in them, as two more baskets by Akins, the latter of which was turned into a three-point play with a converted free throw, brought the Blue Devils back to within 40-34 with 2:29 left.
But Porter helped McConnell keep control of the ball long enough to keep getting back to the line.
The eighth-grade point guard hit 6 of 8 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, part of a 10 of 12 effort for the Tigers as a team in the final frame, and then dished off on a pair of assists converted by Collins and one each by Whitehead and Adia Smith to help McConnell put the game away.
While Whitehead, Collins and Porter were the only McConnell players in double figures, Jenks also contributed eight points.
Akins was the only Pinckneyville player in double figures, but K.K. Johnson contributed nine points for the Blue Devils.