Livingston Academy Takes Home Silver Ball After Championship Loss Against South Side

By Noah McKay

MURFREESBORO – The Livingston Academy Lady Wildcats’ historic 2022-2023 basketball season came to an end on Saturday one step short of their ultimate goal, as they were defeated 62-52 by the Jackson South Side Lady Hawks in the Class 3A state title game on Saturday at the Murphy Center.

The Lady Wildcats were unable to overcome a 15-point first half deficit as they left Murfreesboro with the sixth silver ball in school history.

“There’s a whole lot of people who would want to be in our shoes,” said LA head coach Lesley Riddle. “I’m just super proud. For a team that started with a preseason prediction of being fourth in our district, it’s pretty good to have a state tournament silver ball. It’s really hard right now, but as the years pass they’ll be proud. They joined quite a sorority of Lady Wildcats.”

The Lady Hawks raced out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter as junior LA point guard Mallie Gene Coleman picked up two personal fouls in the opening 90 seconds, forcing Riddle to take her out of the game. JSS capitalized by forcing four quick turnovers before the media timeout in the middle of the quarter.

The Lady Hawks stretched the lead to 9-1 before an and-one by Ellie Butler made it 9-4. JSS answered with four straight by Kimora Currie to take a 13-4 lead into the second quarter.

The Lady Hawks expanded the lead to 19-4 with back-to-back threes, prompting a timeout by Riddle. Out of the break, sophomore Ellie Butler rattled off six straight points followed by a Keely Mullins three to cut the deficit to 21-13. Later in the frame, baskets by Halle Ledbetter, Butler and Aleah Melton ended the half with LA down 24-19. After the timeout by Riddle, the Wildcats closed the half on a 15-5 run.

“I felt like that was the best (JSS) had,” said Riddle on her message during the timeout. “And we had been really bad. And of course their speed and their aggressive defense… we weren’t ready for that. I thought we could get ourselves back under control and fight back in the game a little bit.”

The two teams traded baskets early in the third quarter, with Albany Collins making her fourth triple of the game to stretch the South Side lead to 32-24 with 4:41 left in the third.

The scoring for both teams continued in the back half of the frame, with Butler, Melton and Ledbetter each making baskets, but JSS answered with a layup by Jaidynn Askins with 12 seconds left gave JSS a 43-35 lead into the final frame of the tournament.

The Lady Wildcats cut the deficit back to six on baskets by Melton and Butler, but the Lady Hawks rattled off an 8-4 run to expand the lead back to 53-43 with two minutes to play. The Lady Hawks made their free throws down the stretch as they secured their first state championship in school history.

“Our fans really helped us,” said Ledbetter on her team’s ability to stay in the game despite a slow start. “Everything our fans have done for us this season has really helped us out a lot.”

The game occurred in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Livingston crowd.

“There were some dark times in the past,” said Riddle. “It was embarrassing. We walked out with a Livingston Academy jersey on, and it didn’t mean anything, but it does again. We’re back, and they did that. That’s why the community supports them. They fought through so much to bring us back to this point.”

Butler shined in her first state title game, scoring a game-high 26 points. Ledbetter and Mullins each tallied nine points, with Ledbetter adding 12 rebounds and four blocks. Melton added eight points.

It was the final game for seniors Melton, Ledbetter and Allred. They have been a part of a resurgence for Hogeye girls’ basketball from having a 14-16 record and first-round district tournament exit in their freshman season, to playing in the state championship game in their senior seasons.

“It’s been a grueling process,” said Melton on LA’s turnaround. “There’s a lot of ‘trust the process’. It’s very rewarding to be here. I’m upset that we lost, but in hindsight we go out here and there’s a bunch of teams that wish they could be here. I’m super proud of the progress that’s been made.”

All-tournament team members from LA were Melton, Coleman, Ledbetter and Butler.

The Lady Wildcats finished the season with a 29-8 record. They made the state tournament for the 20th time in school history, championship game for the 10th time, and the first time since 2009. Riddle said the resurgence of Hogeye hoops has led to increased expectations, which is a benefit for the program.

“Winners create winners,” said Riddle. “There’s 8, 9, 10-year-old girls up in those stands who want to be these people. They’re going home with their state tournament t-shirt… they’re going to be working at home to continue that tradition. That happened for years at Livingston. There’s going to be an expectation now. That’s going to put the bullseye on you just a little bit, but we kind of like that.”

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