By PATRICK CASEY
A Walton basketball team that went 6-20 last season and earned a spot in the Class 5A girls basketball playoffs has grown up this season, posting a 16-6 overall record after recording a dramatic 59-54 victory over district tournament host West Florida Tech on Saturday night to capture the District 1 title and a home game in the opening round of this week’s state playoffs.
How did the Braves do it? Versatility.
Sophomore guard Haleigh Graham scored 17 points and ping-ponged her way up the court more times than you could count against a physical Jaguars defense that forced 28 turnovers and still lost the game.
Or maybe it was junior Izaiah Williams, who scored 11 points, making 9-of-12 free throws with the Braves trailing by seven going into the fourth quarter that helped spark the rally. Williams consistently drove the paint over the final three minutes of the game, taking more hits than a pinball while making enough free throws to close the gap as the game slowed to a possession-by-possession NBA Finals style of play.
Or could it be sophomore forward Macy Danley. The blonde bomber made only one shot from behind the three-point line on the night but had a pair of nice finishes on fast break opportunities to the basket that were key in the Braves earning a 27-all deadlock at halftime.
Or perhaps it was forward Camryn Johnson, who scored eight points, making all six of her free throws, including two with less than six seconds left in the game that put the Braves up five points and finally allowed the Walton County fans to breathe a sigh of relief and grasp a victory that should rank near the top of any in Walton’s rich district tournament history.
It could have been junior TyRhonda Battle with a free throw line jumper late in the first half or sophomore Cora Daniels playing lock-down defense on Jaguars senior guard Natalie Nicks while adding a key three-point shot in the waning moments of the first half. Or forward Brittanee Collinsworth making a pair of free throws before intermission while battling for rebounds that were key in the Braves comeback in the second half.
Senior guard Chambleigh Webster looked like a running back getting ready for the 30th carry of the game late in the fourth quarter as she fought through relentless pressure by West Florida in a game that saw more players hit the floor than a group of first-timers at an ice skating rink.
Coach Brad West, who took over for Michael Craig after the first seven regular season games, seemed to make all the right moves late in the game, working in players from the bench to get everyone some rest while altering strategy over the final three minutes from taking perimeter to shots to having Williams pound the middle for multiple trips to the free throw line.
“We knew if we kept driving the paint we were going to go to the line late in the game,” West said. The Braves made 26-of-37 for the game from the charity stripe to rally for the win as they hit on only 13-of-40 from the field.
Jaguars senior guard Natalie Nicks was saddled with two early fouls and picked up a third before the half to limit her time on the court. She fouled out with 2:45 to go in the game and Walton came back from a four-point deficit to get the win with the help of 10 turnovers in the final period, several of which occurred over the final 90 seconds and kept the host squad from either getting to the line or using their superior size to earn baskets near the goal.
Khadija Chambless led the squad with 19 points while Chloe Radford added 10, mainly from the paint, but the Jaguars missed several shots from point-blank range that eventually wound up in the hands of Braves defenders.
Graham was solid once again. She hit four shots from behind the three-point line, using her patented step-back shot to annoy the visiting team.
Nicks finished with 13 points as the Jags were 15-of-48 from the field and 18-of-31 from the free throw line. West Florida(15-13) will make the long trek to Tallahassee to play Florida High(21-5) on Thursday night while the Braves will look for revenge at home against an East Gadsden squad that clubbed the Braves 71-30 in Gadsden County last year in the first round of the playoffs.
Team Notes: Walton has won 14 district titles in girls basketball and four in the past six seasons. Walton is 19-21 all-time in the state playoffs. Walton has won 16 or more games seven times in the last 11 seasons. Michael Craig posted a 3-4 mark before Brad West took over with the Braves 13-2 since that point. Walton did not get to play three games that were on their original schedule as the referees did not show up for their home game with PDL and their road contest at Arnold. North Bay Haven took over Rutherford’s date on the schedule as the district contest had to be played earlier than scheduled to count in the district standings. Walton is 362-255 overall in the last 25 seasons.
By PATRICK CASEY