For the first time since 1989, Calcasieu Parish has a girls basketball state champion in the LaGrange Gators, who wrapped up the state tournament in style with a double-digit win over two-time defending state champion Warren Easton.
It is a great achievement for the LaGrange community. The school doesn't get as much support as others in the area, but the past and present administration, faculty and staff have formed a close-knit community.
The girl's hoops team did the same, as evidenced by a post-game interview session which alternated between slumber party levels of laughter and fits of crying, most of which featured senior forward Alona Gray, who admitted to tearing up before both state tournament games, first out of nerves, then out of the sadness of playing her last game with current teammates.
Gray is a great example of the growth the program has shown over the past couple of years. After being a defensive specialist her first two seasons, Gray approached head coach La'Keem Holmes about improving the rest of her game. After a summer of work, she helped lead the Gators to a win over Lafayette Christian, a defending state champion, early in the 2018-2019 season, when the team as a whole followed her lead and reached the Class 5A quarterfinals.
With starters Gray, Jeriah Warren, Aasia Sam, Nadailyn Carrier and Deja Tanks all returning this season, the Gators came in with high expectations. Holmes did not back down, boosting the Gators schedule with trips to prestigious tournaments in Texas and New Orleans. After an unsatisfactory trip the Texas, Holmes challenged his team to compete better against top teams. They responded, winning the Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans the next week and going on a 20-2 run to end the season, with the losses coming by a total of nine points to fellow state champions Lee Magnet and Lafayette Christian. The Gators handed Class C champion Hick their only loss, beat Class B champion Fairview and went 9-2 against teams that reached the semifinal round of the playoffs.
In the championship game, Gray and frontcourt mate Deja Tanks sparked the Gators again, keying a game-opening 11-3 run with a series of hustle plays, offensive rebounds and putback baskets, including a Gray mid-air tip-in from the middle of the paint on a missed free throw. Gray forced two turnovers with tipped passes in the backcourt and Tanks dominated the paint, grabbing eight rebounds in the opening quarter and 15 in the game.
Aside from a few swoops to the hoop in the third quarter by game MVP Jeriah Warren, the Gators didn't make many spectacular plays. The game was a low-scoring rock fight, but the tenacity of Gray and Tanks was fun to watch. The postgame conference was even better, with discussions of bus ride singing and dancing contests taking the spotlight over actual basketball discussion. The players lit up more talking about each other than their accomplishments on the court.
In a preseason interview, I asked Warren, who can do just about anything on the court, what part of the game she enjoyed most. "When every one is having fun or when me or my teammates make a big play and we celebrate together," was a pretty prophetic description of what took place Saturday night. Sam, who powered the Gators to the tournament with a series of big-scoring games, made only one shot from the field, but drew the biggest reaction from the crown with a blocked shot. Carrier, the defensive leader, buried a baseline jumper for the Gators first basket, giving LaGrange a lead it never lost. Tanks, who expressed disappointment with her semifinal performance to Holmes, was the most dominant player on the court in the decisive first quarter. Reserve guard Alanna Stevens drew praise from Holmes for her defensive work.
The Gators performance and celebrations were an ideal ending to the tournament which featured other local highlights, such as Fairview's return to championship status, the mutual admiration between Fairview head coach Kyle Jinks and former player Courtnee Young, who led a young Hathaway team to the Class B final and the return of Lacassine and Merryville to the big stage after a brief absence.