HOWELL’S COVE -- Talladega County Central High School’s girls basketball team will take on Westminster Oak Mountain on Friday at 3 p.m. in the Class 1A Central Regional tournament at the Dunn-Oliver Acadome on the campus of Alabama State University in Montgomery.
This is Lady Fighting Tigers’ third straight trip to the regional tournament, which is a feat head coach Robert Duncan is proud of.
“We are excited to be there,” Duncan said. “I think out of the last three years, this is the most gratifying. We have worked so much harder to get there with such a young group. A lot of people don’t realize the hard work that these young ladies have put in since the first of June. They have worked hard and they have had to participate in other school activities, and they still came together and jelled as a basketball team. I think we have really exceeded our expectations.”
In each of the previous two seasons, the Lady Fighting Tigers were overmatched by defending state champion Spring Garden in the regional tournament. This season, Duncan believes his team matches up well with Westminster Oak Mountain (19-4).
“I feel real good about our matchup, but, of course, you know that you can’t play the game on paper” Duncan said. “I do feel good about our matchup. They are well disciplined, they are well coached and they do a lot of fundamental things well. Just like us, they are a good team, but they do have some vulnerability that we are going to try to try to expose and get them to work in our advantage.
“I understand that our kids will go out and have some nervous energy, but there will be nervous energy on the other side as well. It is just a matter of who settles down and plays basketball in the second, third and fourth quarter."
Over the past six years, Duncan has worked hard to turn the girls basketball team into a basketball program. The hard work has paid off for the Lady Fighting Tigers. Duncan has led a team filled with seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders to a 22-5 record this season. TC Central has won 20-plus games in four of the last five years.
“The difference with this young group of girls compared to the year when Savona (Garrett) and Ti (Tiarrial Duncan) were seventh- and eighth-graders is that we are growing more into a program as opposed to a team,” Duncan said. “We are trying to be competitive year in and year out. That is why we have such a good balance on this team and throughout the program.
“The girls from junior high can leave there and come play some here on varsity. I think it speaks well of the program. You start doing positive things, and kids want to be a part of the program. I think it says a lot about the growth of the girls.”
Marlonda Pemberton is one of two juniors on the team. She believes coming into the season, nobody outside of the team believed the Lady Fighting Tigers would be having the type of season they are enjoying.
“I think people counted us out because we are a younger team,” Pemberton said. “A lot of people didn’t expect a lot from us this year, but I think we have proved a lot of people wrong. I think we have accomplished more than we thought that we would accomplish."
Adjusting to the surroundings shouldn’t be that daunting of a task for the Lady Fighting Tigers. Last summer, TC Central spent several days in Montgomery for the Alabama State women's basketball team camp. Deja Gover believes that experience will help her squad going into Friday's game
“I think it is a great opportunity,” Gover said. “The last two seasons, we went to JSU. This season, I think we will have an advantage because we spent the summer at ASU. Even though it is a different environment, we have already been on their court and we have already been inside the dome. I think it is going to be great.”
Freshman Devona Gover has stepped up for the Lady Tigers in big games. In the area championship game, she scored 16 of her game-high 20 points in the second half to lead TC Central past Winterboro. On Monday, she scored 12 of her 14 points after halftime to help the Lady Fighting Tigers defeat Notasulga in a sub-regional playoff game.
“My mindset has been to go out there and give it my all,” Devona Gover said. “I can say at the beginning of the season we played good. We had a couple of dry spots, but we got over those. A lot of my teammates as well as myself have stepped out of our comfort zone. Faith (Johnson), Davionna (Stockdale) and I, we had to come out of our shells this year. We had to stop holding back and play. I think with us doing that, it has been a big accomplishment and it has taken us far.”
Faith Johnson has been a major contributor for TC Central this season. The seventh-grader is among the leaders on the team in scoring.
“We have a great team, and everybody has their own special talent,” Johnson said. “When we are on the court, we play as a team and we root for each other on the court and on the bench.”
Davionna Stockdale is the defensive specialist for TC Central. The sophomore believes the Lady Fighting Tigers will have a chance to win if they remain calm and execute the game plan.
“I feel like if we play like we did in the third and fourth quarter (against Notasulga), I think we can win,” Stockdale said. “We came together as a team, we composed ourselves, we listened to what Coach Rob (Robert Duncan) said and we did exactly what he told us to do. If we do that (Friday), we will leave with a victory as well.”