By REID TUCKER
History will remember Emily Murray as the player to sink a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left on the clock at the 2014 1A state championship.
She’ll go down in Paxton School lore for leading the team with 20 points in that game and for the four straight foul shots she made to seal the deal on the win. Fans, students, teachers and members of the Paxton community will recount how her performance helped give the Lady Cats a 39-34 victory over Chipley, claiming the school’s first state title since 1997. The record books will show how the recent Gadsden State College signee was named state championship MVP and Player of the Year by the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches.
Murray’s most memorable moment was something else entirely.
Late last December, when Paxton battled in overtime against Mississippi’s New Site for third place at an invitational Christmas tournament in Destin, Murray had an epiphany. Faced with a situation in which most of the Lad Cats’ key players fouled out with four minutes to go in regulation, Murray led the reserves through a whole quarter without any post players. Though Murray set a tournament record with six 3s and 28 points, what she remembers most is how her team mate, Quinn Williams, drained a 3-point buzzer shot to win the game.
“Even though we won third place we felt like we won the whole tournament,” she said. “Everyone was wrapped up with what they thought was a fact – that Paxton was really just one or two players. The defining moment for me was when we won without that advantage. It was then that we realized it isn’t one or two people that made up our team – it’s the whole team. The (state) championship game was great, but it wouldn’t mean as much if we weren’t so close as a team.”
That competitive drive was impressed upon Murray at age 8, when she moved to Paxton from Bradenton, near Sarasota. During PE classes, there was no sitting down allowed, and kids often had a basketball in their hands at all times. Competitiveness was everywhere, even among the youngest students, and Murray responded in kind.
Former Lady Cats head coach Herb Haddock convinced Murray to take up basketball in the sixth grade, and by eighth grade she was getting varsity minutes. She grew into the sport and began playing on the varsity squad full-time as a freshman under the mentorship of fellow point guard Krysten Cuchens. Murray became a starter in her sophomore year and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Starting out, it was just that I didn’t like to lose,” she said. “It wasn’t that I loved the sport right away, I just didn’t want to lose at anything, ever. I wanted to know what it was like to fight for something and win. I wanted a part of the pride of the school and to play the game as well as I could.”
Murray had the weight of the school’s winning legacy on her shoulders from the start, said head coach Steve Williams, who came to the school five years ago, but he always recognized she had the tools she’d need to succeed as the team’s leader. That means more than scoring the most points, though she came close with 345 points on the year. What Murray really brought to the floor was an intuitive grasp of the flow of the game and how to utilize her team mates’ strengths to pull out a win.
“I knew pretty much from the first time I saw her shoot that she was going to be really special,” Williams said. “As she matured a little bit each year her skills and her leadership know-how grew as well. There’s a fine line between a leader and a non-leader. If her numbers in scoring went down in scoring it was because her assist and rebounds went up. She really knows how to give other people the best opportunity to score.”
Williams praised Murray’s mental fortitude – displayed best when she stood alone at the Lakeland Center free throw line and made all four shots to get the championship win over a physically dominant Chipley squad. For Williams, those few seconds were the zenith of Murray’s high school career and the summation of what makes her the competitor that she is.
“It’s not easy to make free throws, but it is easier when you have your team mates standing there with you,” Williams said. “For her to stand there, in that one moment, and make those free throws shows me how she had matured. After all the tears and hard work, I had to let her be her. It was the culmination of five years of growing together, and it was pretty special.”
As for what the future holds for the Lady Cats, Murray is certain they’ll be back in top form for next season. Bethany Neale will inherit the leadership role Murray filled while her point guard duties will likely go to freshman Katie Sebastian, who stunned Chiefland in the state semi-final by leading Paxton’s scorers with 14 points, all from the outside. Williams, however, will miss Murray’s presence on the floor and in the huddle, where her basketball knowledge streamlined the flow of the game.
“I didn’t have to think about what play to run because she was already running it,” Williams said. “We didn’t graduate many seniors this year, but we have a lot of questions to answer this summer about what kind of team we want to be without her. Emily wasn’t just a point guard. She played on the back line of our zone defense and she rebounded a lot for us, even as one of the smallest players on the floor. And we also have a target on our back just like Ponce de Leon did and just like South Walton did. It’s hard to win a championship but it’s harder to stay the champion.”
Paxton is all about its legacy, and its near-evergreen success in 1A sports is understandably a point of pride for the whole community. Murray said none of the Lady Cats’ achievements would have been possible without the support of the teachers, administrators, students, and local fans. All that combined is what makes the program and school what it is, she said, and the younger generations will have even more to live up to in years to come.
“There’s really no point to do something if you aren’t going to work hard,” Murray said. “You’re cheating yourself and you’re hurting your team mates who stand beside you. I hope the young kids see what we did and want to continue that legacy, which is exactly what we did too. Players come and go but the history of this school and the impact it has on this community will always be here.”
By REID TUCKER