By Lee Davis
The Homewood Patriots girls’ basketball team put together a season for the books in 2014-15.
The team finished 30-4, spent most of the year at the top of the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 6A rankings and then claimed its first-ever state championship.
Much can and should be written about the Patriots and their amazing championship run, but the real story of Homewood’s success could be capsulized in the third quarter of the semifinal game against Austin Feb. 26.
In many ways, it was the classic matchup. Austin was ranked No. 2, just a step behind the Patriots. At halftime, Homewood led by a slender 23-21 margin.
And it hadn’t been pretty. Both teams shot less than 30 percent from the field in the first half. Homewood was even shooting less than 50 percent from the free throw line.
Something changed in the second half.
“I didn’t really give any great halftime speech,” said Patriot coach JoVanka Ward. “I just told the girls to play their game, and we’d be fine.”
Freshman forward Tori Webb agreed.
“I don’t remember her yelling at us much,” she said. “She just reminded us what we had done to come this far and told us to go out and do it again in the second half.”
And that’s what happened. Homewood’s patented pressure defense shifted into high gear and overwhelmed the Bears in the third quarter, holding them to a mere six points.
“We couldn’t let up,” said freshman guard Hannah Barber. “There was no difference in what we were trying to do. We just did it much better in the second half.”
The Lady Patriots also improved their shooting, connecting at a 41 percent clip in the final two quarters.
“We wanted to crash the boards and set the tempo with our defense and play the game at our pace by getting out and running,” Ward said. “I thought if we were more aggressive in rebounding, we had a shot at being successful.”
Homewood claimed 34 defensive rebounds, while Austin countered with only nine on offense.
At the end, the game was a rout. The Patriots outscored the Bears 41-19 in the second half on the way to a 66-40 victory. They claimed the Class 6A title with a victory over Blount two days later.
Homewood’s second half juggernaut in the Austin game may be what we see for the next three years, because this team is so young it’s almost scary. Ward normally had four freshmen and a sophomore in her starting lineup. State Tournament co-MVPs Ajah Wayne and Barber are both in the ninth grade.
The challenge of coaching a team loaded with stars too young to legally operate a motor vehicle sometimes brought out the humorist in Ward.
“They have driver’s licenses all right – they have a license to drive me crazy,” she said with a laugh at the press conference following the Blount game.
In all seriousness, Ward realizes that in her third year as Homewood coach she may be holding something special in her hands.
“With girls this young, they don’t know there’s anything that they’re not supposed to be able to do,” she said. “They don’t get nervous about playing in a big place like (the BJCC), and they don’t get worried about playing for a championship. They just go out and play basketball.”
Of course, the question from here is how much better can Homewood get? With all starters returning, the Patriots will be heavy favorites to repeat as champions in 2015-16. And certainly they will be older, more experienced and mature. Could complacency set in? That’s always possible, but Homewood’s opponents had better not count on it.
“We can still get better,” Webb said. “There is always room for improvement. Everyone will be gunning for us next year.”
One thing that won’t change is the aggressive philosophy of offense and defense that was the Patriots’ bread and butter all season.
“We like to run and will continue to do that,” Ward said. “If we can dictate the tempo of a game, it’s to our advantage. We alwayssay that teams think they are prepared for a fast style of play until they face us. Then we like to surprise them.”
Perhaps the mindset of the Homewood players may be the team’s biggest ace in the hole.
“We just want to keep attacking,” Wayne said. “If the other team makes a run, I have in my mind, ‘If you can do it, I can do it better.’”
In 2014-15, nobody did it better than Homewood. And the best could still be yet to come.