By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
McKenzie Akers had one more chance to match her sister, Tesla, and play in the Class AAA state tournament.
That moment will happen on Thursday, after the Tigerettes defeated George Washington in a Region III co-final last week to advance to Charleston for the first time since 2009.
“As soon as we beat GW I called her and told her, ‘You don’t have anything on me now,’” said Princeton’s 5-foot-7 Akers, with a smile. “She said, ‘Yeah, I have a ring still.’”
McKenzie hopes to earn a ring of her own, with three more wins and a state championship on Saturday.
“I am very thankful,” said Akers, whose sister, Tesla, was a first-team all-state honoree at Princeton, who finished a standout college career over the weekend at Ferrum College. “God blessed us, I am very thankful to get this opportunity.”
Princeton (19-5) will meet Logan (15-9) in the Class AAA quarterfinals on Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center. Tip-off is slated for 11:15 a.m. The winner will meet top-seeded Spring Valley or upstart Capital in the semifinals on Friday.
“I am very excited, it is really like a dream come true for all us,” Princeton senior guard Marissa Mullins said. “I have never been more excited than winning at GW.”
That 61-56 win over the Patriots last Tuesday pushed the Tigerettes into the state tournament for the first time since Tesla Akers was a senior standout for Princeton.
‘Big’ sister has offered advice to ‘little’ sister heading into the game.
“She is excited, she just told me not to be nervous,” said Akers, who will play college ball at Marshall. “That is a big thing because it is such a big floor and gym, but just make the best of it.”
Eight seniors — nine, counting the manager — have been striving for a berth in the state tournament for four seasons. There were a few tough postseason setbacks in the past, but the Tigerettes would not be denied after losing to Greenbrier East in the sectional finals.
“It was kind of a relief because the regional games before that we lost, it was just disappointment,” Princeton senior Hannah Preservati said. “When we won, it was just like ‘Oh, we are finally here, we finally did it.’”
They plan to stay for a while.
“We want to make it last,” said Akers, who leads the Tigerettes with 25.2 points a game, and continues to add to her school scoring mark with 1,779 points. “We don’t want it to end yet.”
This is Princeton’s fifth trip to the state tournament in Debbie Ball’s 30 years as coach of the Tigerettes, and Princeton is still looking for that first win.
“You can’t just be happy being there and I am not saying that the groups in the past did that, but this group is different,” Ball said. “They are not the same, it is not like they are just happy to be here.
“This is part of a goal they wanted to accomplish and they are not going to be happy until they finish it on Saturday.”
The win over George Washington came after the Tigerettes lost to the Patriots earlier in the campaign, a decision that cost Princeton a spot in the Mountain State Athletic Conference Night of Champions event.
“It was great, they beat us before the Night of Champions and that was a kind of a setback, but it pumped us even more to think that they were just going to beat us again,” said Akers, who also contributes 5.1 assists and 3.0 steals for the Tigerettes. “We knew it could be our last game so we wanted to leave it all out there.”
They did just that, outscoring the Patriots 40-26 in the second half, with Akers scoring 20 of her 33 points after the break. Mullins tossed in 18 and Jessica Inman added 11, as the Tigerettes combined for eight 3s.
“We never got down, we never gave up,” said Mullins, who provides 11.3 points a game. “We played with heart the whole game and when they got ahead we still battled back. I think that was the big part of it and our running game, and we were shooting very well that night too.”
Princeton knows it must shoot much the same from outside against Logan with a lineup that includes just one player — 6-foot-0 Rachel Surface — who is taller than 5-9. Logan has four players who are 5-10 or bigger.
Surface tallies 6.4 rebounds a game, while athletic Khadija Payne provides 7.2 points and 9.0 boards a contest, but both are undersized for their positions.
“They are a little bit bigger than us and they have (bigger) guards,” Akers said. “I think their smallest person is like 5-7 or 5-8 so that is going to be a disadvantage, but if we just run and play our game I think we will be okay.”
That has been Princeton’s style of play all season. Get the ball and run, penetrate to the goal or pass it out for the 3.
“Three-point shooting, “said Akers, of what must be clicking for the Tigerettes, “but if that is not working we have to push the ball and do our transition and defense is going to be important since they are a little bit bigger than us...
“We can’t bank on (on 3s). We need to work on our defense and play good defense too.”
That philosophy has worked, No need to worry about being smaller than the opposition.
“We are a very well-shooting team and as long as we run the ball and never give up and play with heart I think we have got it,” Mullins said. “We know most teams are bigger than us, we have battled that all year so I don’t think it is really a big deal now, we are small, but we still play big.”
“We are outsized in height and width,” added Preservati, who tallies 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds a contest, “but I think no one can match our heart and our toughness.”
She should know. Preservati has played through pain much of the season, thanks to a torn ACL in her right knee that has caused problems since it was injured last summer. She actually tore it again earlier this year and tweaked it again in a late-season win over Capital.
Yet, Preservati never once thought about calling it a season.
“I guess you could say that, but it is worth it,” said Preservati, of playing through the pain. “Pain is not an option, it doesn’t matter as long as I get to play, it is my senior year and I don’t want to let my team down...
“We are very blessed to get to go to states this year. We have worked really hard and our hard work has paid off.”
Mullins is the smallest of the Tigerettes, standing just 5-4, but the senior doesn’t back down from anyone.
“Most people are taller than me so I have the mindset, ‘Don’t let the big girls scare me,’” Mullins said. “I know when I can drive on them and when I can’t. That is why I am usually a shooter from outside, I don’t take it in on the big girls too often, but if it is wide open, then yeah.”
Much has been made about Greenbrier East — which had been considered the pre-tournament favorite — losing to Capital in the regionals, leaving the defending state champion and then-24-0 Spartans at home.
“I feel like it is anyone’s game now,” Akers said.
However, the Tigerettes weren’t so sure that wasn’t still the case, no matter where the Spartans were in Charleston or not.
“In my opinion, if East was still in it I still think it would be a close race, but anyone can win,” Preservati said. “We are going to play like we are there to win.”
“I think as long as we just run the ball and just play with heart,” added Mullins, “I think we have got it.”
—Contact Brian Woodson