By Rubin E. Grant
Reniya Kelly clutched the basketball in her left arm as she made an emotional dash up the court.
Her facial expression had the look of someone who finally had accomplished something they had been trying to do for some time.
Hoover’s 5-foot-7 junior guard had gotten fouled in the backcourt with nine seconds remaining in the girls Class 7A championship game against rival Vestavia Hills and rushed toward the free-throw line, knowing the Lady Bucs had secured the state title for the second consecutive year.
Kelly sank the first of the two free-throw attempts and missed the second, but it didn’t matter. The No. 1 Lady Bucs (34-3) had done what they came to do, beating the No. 2 Vestavia Hills Lady Rebels 73-64 Saturday at the BJCC Legacy Arena in the AHSAA 100th State Basketball Championships.
The theme all season long for the Lady Bucs had been: “Run It Back.”
“Back-to-back, that’s a whole new level,” Kelly said. “It means a lot to the team and the Hoover legacy and we’re just trying to keep it going.”
Hoover was making its fourth consecutive appearance in the championship game, winning titles in 2019 and 2021, but finishing as runners-up in 2020 to crosstown rival Spain Park. The Lady Bucs also won the 2017 Class 7A title in Krystle Johnson’s first season as head coach at her alma mater but hadn’t won consecutive titles since 2012 and 2013.
“The pattern was win, lose, win, lose,” Johnson said. “They broke that pattern. We got the monkey off our back.”
Johnson became very emotional as she continued to speak with tears in her eyes.
“God is good,” she said. “Not everyone knows what this team went through this season. Everything we’ve been through makes it all worth it. We’ve had three ACL surgeries, people left, the schedule was hard. To get to this moment is a blessing. I cry every time we win, but this one is different. These players played through adversity.”
Vestavia Hills (33-3) was making its fourth overall title-game appearance, the last coming in a 1997 loss to Butler of Huntsville. The Lady Rebels won their only state championship in 1987.
“I’m really proud of these girls,” Vestavia Hills coach John David Smelser said. “They played as hard as they could. They just played an exceptional game and the biggest one of the season.
“What a game. The two best teams in 7A going at it toe-to-toe. A lot of scoring. A lot of fight from both teams.”
Kelly led the Lady Bucs with 26 points, sinking 14 of 17 free-throw attempts. She also had nine rebounds and four assists to earn MVP honors.
Senior swingman Aniya Hubbard added 25 points, making 9 of 15 field-goal attempts, including 4 of 5 three-pointers, and was named to the All-Tournament team, as was teammate Alana Pooler.
Hubbard suffered knee injuries each of the past two seasons but returned from both to help Hoover win titles.
“This is my last year and I wanted to go out on top,” said Hubbard, who is headed to Florida Atlantic to play collegiately. “I can’t express how good this feels. My teammates put so much trust in me. This trophy, we all deserve it after all we’ve been through.”
Earning the championship trophy didn’t come easy for the Lady Bucs. Hoover led 17-16 at the end of first quarter and 33-27 at halftime. The Lady Bucs increased their advantage to 51-38 on Pooler’s basket on an assist from Hubbard with 2:35 remaining in the third.
The Lady Rebels clawed back, cutting Hoover’s lead to 55-49 at the end of the third and pulling within 55-52 on senior guard Emma Smith’s layup with 6:29 remaining in the final quarter.
But that was as close as the Lady Rebels would come. Kelly scored six consecutive points, including four free throws, to extend Hoover’s lead to 61-52 with 5:55 left. The Lady Bucs kept the Lady Rebels at bay the rest of the way.
“I think we played well, but whenever we got close, their two stars (Kelly and Hubbard) made plays,” Smelser said. “They went for 25 and 26. They’re elite players.”
Emma Smith led Vestavia Hills with 19 hard-earned points, 16 coming in the second half. She also had seven rebounds and three assists. Ally Smith and Sarah Gordon added 11 points each.
Emma and Ally Smith, who are twins, were both named to the All-Tournament team. Emma Smith surpassed 2,000 career points in her final game. She doesn’t plan to play in college.
She fought back tears as she talked about the disheartening loss.
“I know we want to be in that other locker room, but I would never trade this team even if it meant we had won the whole thing,” Emma Smith said. “I’d rather be in the locker room with these same girls 100 times over. I’m just grateful we got a chance to play on this stage.”
Ally Smith said it was special playing with her sister and the rest of her teammates.
“It has been a blessing for me and Emma to play the last five years,” Ally Smith said. “When we were in the eighth grade it was so hard to form relationships with the older girls. So we have made it our mission to form those relationships now with younger girls. This team will be back. It was an amazing senior season and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Hoover advanced to the championship game with a 91-54 victory against Davidson (31-3) in the semifinals. The Lady Bucs had 14 players crack the scoring column with Hubbard leading the way with 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. Junior Layla Etchison added 22 points, six rebounds, five steals and five assists, and Kelly had 16 points, four assists and four steals.
Vestavia Hills rolled to a 78-58 win over Auburn (20-7) in their semifinal game. The Lady Rebels made 12 3-pointers and forced 29 turnovers. Ally Smith sank 5 of 9 3-point attempts to finish with 17 points, and Sarah Gordon made 3 of 8 3-pointers and scored 15 points. Emma Smith also had 15 points, Anna Towry 12 and Jill Gaylard nine.
The championship game was delayed because of multiple fights that began in the BJCC and moved outside, according to Birmingham police.
There were also reports of an active shooter leading to panic as people ran for cover, but there was no active shooter and authorities said there was no evidence of shots being fired either inside or outside of the arena.
Both teams were on the court warming up when the commotion began and scurried off the court.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Johnson said. “We were dialed in, but it was a scary moment. We were just ready to play. Nothing was going to keep us from being ready.
“I didn’t know what was happening, who was safe, who was not safe. I got separated from them, but we stayed focused and ready to play the game.”
Smelser also was confused about what was happening.
“I looked up and saw people ducking,” Smelser said. “My first reaction was to get my players to the locker room, so we did.
“I’m not making excuses, but it did kind of get us out of our rhythm. We already had a pregame speech. We were warming up and then we had to start over again. You don’t prepare for that.”
After order was restored, the teams returned to the court and were given additional time to warm-up before the game tipped off.
“I’m glad they extended the time,” Smelser said. “If we would have played in 10 minutes, we wouldn’t have been ready. I’m glad they pushed it back another 10, and we kind of got back in gear.”