By Jeffery Armstrong
MACON ? Those critics of the Mt. Zion Lady Bulldogs basketball team had better sit up and take notice.
For the second time in three nights, Mt. Zion added another playoff win to its resume', this time tripping up the sixth-ranked Riverdale Lady Raiders 52-42 Saturday night in the state Class AAAAA Elite 8 at the Macon Centreplex. Thursday night, Mt. Zion defeated the No. 13 Beach Lady Bulldogs 49-48 in the second round.
That's two ranked teams down, only two more to go.
Mt. Zion (19-11) now advances to the state semifinals for the first time in school history. Mt. Zion will face Collins Hill in the Class AAAAA state Final Four Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Gwinnett Center Arena.
"They're believing they can win every time they step on the floor," said a happy Mt. Zion head coach Dock Gammage. "My team feels that they can beat anyone."
Gammage showed his team a copy of negative comments written about Mt. Zion on a website chat page before Saturday's game and it seemed to spark the Lady Bulldogs.
"We saw the bad things people were saying about our chances against Riverdale and that made us upset," said Mt. Zion guard Shaka Dennison, who finished with a game-high 16 points. "Those comments didn't take us out of our game, however."
The battle of Clayton County rivals was just that ? a battle. There were several lead changes and five ties in the contest.
For some reason, Riverdale (25-5) seemed a bit sluggish at the start of the contest. Mt. Zion seemed to get easy access to the lane and Riverdale made way too many careless turnovers in falling behind 23-22 at the half.
The last tie of the game was at the end of the third quarter, when the score was 35-all. Mt. Zion took over the game in the final stanza, thanks to inspired play from Bulldogs forward Whitney Linton.
Linton, who sat with foul trouble in the first half, scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, grabbed several defensive rebounds and made a block on a drive by Riverdale's Brittany Baity to spark the Lady Bulldogs. Mt. Zion's Milan Johnson (14 points) made a layup and Linton added another free throw to cap a 7-0 run for a 42-35 lead with 4:38 left in the game.
"My coach told me that the team needed me to rebound and play well, so i said to myself that it's time to play," said Linton, who finished with 11 points. "My jumpers in the fourth quarter got me going."
It just wasn't Riverdale's night offensively. Defensively, they caused 27 Mt. Zion turnovers, but the Lady Raiders just couldn't put the ball in the basket. Layups they would normally make wouldn't fall and if they were fouled, the Lady Raiders couldn't hit the free throws.
Riverdale didn't score its first fourth-quarter point until Antoinette Williams' free throw with 3:43 left. Riverdale missed 10 shots and five free throws in the fourth quarter and committed 20 turnovers themselves.
"Give Mt. Zion credit - they made the plays they had to make while we missed our layups and shots," said Riverdale head coach Derick Powell. "We also didn't capitalize when Linton was on the bench."
Still, Riverdale didn't quit and cut the lead to six at 46-40 on a Baity layup with 2:24 remaining. But Dennison made a steal off an inbounds pass and went coast-to-coast for a layup and a 48-40 Mt. Zion lead with 1:55 left and that denied Riverdale a second straight trip to the Final Four.
"That steal was nice, but I didn't believe it was over until the clock hit all zeroes," said Dennison.
Williams led Riverdale with 10 points. She and a few others will be back next year, but the tandem of Baity, Dequisha Davis, Tia Perry, Sadari Walters, Jessika Johnson and Dominique Philpots will all graduate this year.
"It's going to be hard to see this senior class go," Powell said. "They've won three region titles, made two Elite Eight's and made the Final Four. They were great."