“I’m not a defensive player,” she said after Ragland’s 54-42 victory over Spring Garden in Friday’s Class 1A girls Northeast Regional final.
Nonetheless, Church guarded Spring Garden’s Tara Mullinax and spearheaded the Purple Devils’ shutout of the Panthers in the crucial third quarter in Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
That amazing quarter of defense helped Ragland (27-4) break open a game that was tied 24-24 at halftime and advance to next week’s state semifinals in Birmingham.
“It really surprised me to hold her and nobody scoring for them in the third quarter,” Church said.
Church’s chance for defensive heroics emerged because of foul troubles. Mullinax’s drives during her 16-point, second-quarter show helped put three fouls apiece on tournament MVP Kailey Echols and center J.J. Looney.
That forced Ragland coach Rush Rutledge to put Church on Mullinax and hope for the best in the second half.
“Mullinax is going to get her points; she’s just that good of a player,” Rutledge said. “I told Emily, ‘You’re just going to have to play her the best you can play her, and she got a couple of steals from her that saved us in the third quarter.”
Mullinax still finished with a game-high 26 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. By that time, Ragland had broken open the game.
A 12-0 third quarter put the Purple Devils ahead 36-24. Spring Garden (24-8) went 0-for-6 from the floor with five turnovers in the quarter, and it took nearly three minutes into the fourth quarter for the Panthers to score.
The teams played to a draw in the fourth quarter, with Ragland leading by as many as 17 points.
Led by Echols’ 18 points and Church’s 16, Ragland shot 65 percent from the field in the second half and held Spring Garden to 38 percent in both halves.
“I was concerned coming into the game,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said. “You watch them and see how big and strong they are, and defensively, spacing, they’re good on the floor defensively.
“I knew our strengths, and I knew our weaknesses, and things I had seen out of them that they would be able to take our strengths away. I was wondering where points were going to come from.”
Spring Garden’s best span was the second quarter. Mullinax came up to the high post, got the ball and drove for most of her 16 points in those eight minutes. She also hit two of her four 3-pointers in that span.
When things went bad in the third quarter, Austin tried difference presses in hopes of getting transition baskets.
Ragland committed just 10 turnovers for the game.
Once in the half-court set, the Purple Devils patiently worked the ball to Echols and Church.
When they missed, they rebounded. Echols had a game-high 10 rebounds, and Ragland held a 32-19 edge on the boards. The Purple Devils had almost as many offensive rebounds (14) as Spring Garden had total boards.
“We had a game plan coming in, and we stuck to it and basically did it to perfection,” Rutledge said. “The thing that sticks out is the third quarter, when they scored zero points.
“… Coming into the third quarter and holding them to zero points is probably what won us the ballgame.”
Joining Echols on the all-tournament team were Church, Looney, Mullinax, Spring Garden’s Jordan Sides, Jacksonville Christian’s Katy Miller and Collinsville’s Marissa Soloman.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.