The truth is, Anniston has been thinking about playing the Golden Eagles in the Class 4A Northeast Regional championship since 2012. It got its wish Saturday and left Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum with a 69-45 win, advancing to the Class 4A Final Four for the first time since 2009.
Anniston (24-5) will face Calera in the state semifinals Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham.
“It feels great,” said Anniston forward Quanetria Bolton, who scored 20 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and won regional most valuable player honors. “This is really how I wanted to carry out my senior year. It’s been a goal since the start.”
The story behind Anniston’s motivation dates back to when the Bulldogs missed the cut two seasons ago. Anniston lost in the semifinals, while Jacksonville won the regional and went on to take the state championship.
“We felt like we had the best team in the state and we played Jacksonville, and they had a good team, too, and they won state,” Anniston coach Eddie Bullock said. “They had four losses -- I think they were 31-4 -- and those four losses were to us. We didn’t get a chance to play them again in the finals because we got beat by the No. 2 team in the state, Oneonta.
“We wanted to redeem ourselves. We felt like the only way to do that was to make it back to Birmingham.”
Saturday’s win was Anniston’s third this season over Jacksonville, and the Golden Eagles brought similar strategies as the previous two games. Bullock had the Bulldogs prepared.
Golden Eagles coach Ryan Chambless called for a box-and-one defense with 5-foot-11 guard Virginia Poe shadowing the 6-foot-2 Bolton to open the game. Poe did not allow Bolton to score until the middle of the second quarter, but she required help. When Poe would get help from teammates, Bolton would kick the ball out, mostly to guards Rakeema Najiy and Marticia Jackson.
The duo scored Anniston’s first 13 points and eventually combined for 25.
“Rakeema is probably my most athletic guard on the team, but she thinks about the game too much,” Bullock said. “Last night she spent the night with us and I told her she was going to be the difference maker in the game.”
The Bulldogs’ offense gave them a 38-33 lead at halftime, but it was the defense that blew the game open in the second half.
Bullock said he wanted to take Poe’s scoring threat out of the game and slow down guard Angel Kidd. Kidd and Poe scored two points each the remainder of the game.
“We ended up stopping both of them. We played defense great,” Bullock said. “Defense is the bottom line. We’ve had some practices for a week when we don’t do anything offensively.
Anniston led 51-41 heading to the fourth quarter then went on a 16-0 run, including eight straight points by Bolton.
“At halftime, coach asked me if I wanted my season to end like this,” Bolton said. “That kind of stuck with me, and I knew I had to step up and lead my team if we were going to take it all the way.”
For Anniston, Najiy had 15 points and Jackson 10. Jacksonville got 13 points from Kidd, 11 from Poe and 10 from Dasia Kirksey.
As for Jacksonville (22-8), the Golden Eagles more than likely will remain in the mix next year. They lose only Jasmine Easley to graduation this season.
“We have a lot of girls back,” Chambless said. “We have a lot of 10th graders and juniors, plus the ninth-grade class has a lot of athletes in it, as well. The future is pretty bright.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.