State Champions: Lady Indians cement legacy with title run [VIDEO]
“The last four days, I think I’ve been busier than in the previous four weeks,” says Lumpkin County Lady Indians head coach David Dowse. “It doesn’t slow down, but everything is good. It’s very enjoyable.”
Dowse and Lumpkin County are still basking in its Class 3A State Championship, captured with a 51-47 win over GAC on March 11 in Macon. It’s been an incredible feeling across the board, as the community and team alike may not come off this cloud anytime soon.
“It feels really, really good,” exclaims Dowse, who has worked at this for nearly 20 years. “For me, it’s how we won it as much, or more so, the fact that we won it. We won it the way I believe it should be done — with kids who are from your community, kids that grew up together. That’s what high school sports is supposed to be about. That piece of it makes it all the more satisfying.”
The players are sometimes still coming to realize what just happened, as they capped their 30-1 season with a 28th straight win at leaving the court as the undisputed best team in the state of Georgia.
“It’s crazy,” adds sophomore guard Averie Jones. “All of our hard work that we put in this season, we had one goal. We just knew that we had to get it done. It’s feels crazy to know that we finally made it reality. It hasn’t sunk in for me yet. Sometimes I totally forget, and I wake up and go to school and somebody congratulates me and I’m like ‘oh my gosh, I’m a state champion.'”
“We put our mind to knowing we’re not losing…and we did it,” states junior guard Lexi Pierce, who admits there were nerves for all the players late in a nail-biting finish against GAC. It took a 14-0 late run for Lumpkin County to get back in the game and take a lead in the final minutes. From the players to even Dowse, who appeared to be stoic on the sidelines, had to control their nerves.
“My heart was beating pretty quickly,” admits Dowse. “I was feeling nervous excitement, but at the same time, that calm demeanor on the sideline probably isn’t typical of me most games. I just knew that in that moment they didn’t need a coach who was a raving lunatic out there. They needed to be able to look to the bench and find somebody that was under control. I hope that helped.”
When the final horn sounded, Lumpkin County could see the fruit of their hard work and dedication, and perseverance. It wasn’t long ago that the thought of Lumpkin County girls basketball even being a playoff team was not in the realm of reality. Prior to Dowse’s arrival in Dahlonega, the program was just 34-169. His first year came with 9 wins, the most in a decade. Then a 17-win season with a #7 state ranking. Then a 15-win ’19-’20 with a state playoff run and #6 rank. Then last year’s region championship and Final 4 run, with a #1 ranking and 25 total wins. This year was supposed to be very special. But it wasn’t that long ago also that the dream of a state title was in grave danger. Dowse shockingly resigned after a 2-0 start, right after a 65-22 win over Morgan County. As well-documented, the ship was losing its course, and Dowse felt strongly that the program was losing its ‘togetherness’.
A loss to powerhouse Buford and a win over St. Pius came without their leader. However, Dowse returned and brought the team back together to win the next 27 games, including the final and most important one. The season concluded with a 30-1 record, a second consecutive region championship, a state title, and a #1 ranking that Lumpkin held from day one until the very end.
The team’s motto and mantra for this season was ‘Play 32’, which represents both the number of minutes in a regulation game and the maximum number of games you can play in a season.
“Sadly we only got to play 31, but we still accomplished our goal,” says junior guard Mary Mullinax. “We took it one game at a time.”
The road to the title was no walk in the park. In fact, Dowse jokes that it may have been better to not win the region with the way the bracket was set up. To win it all, the Lady Indians had to go through previously-ranked top-10 ranked Redan in the first round (W 84-51), #8-ranked Tattnall (W 90-30) in the Sweet 16, #2 Cross Creek (W 49-39) in the Elite 8, #4 Westminster (W 64-42 in the Final 4, and finally #3 GAC (W 51-47) in the title game. The win at Cross Creek was essentially a state championship type of game and was an opportunity for revenge for Lumpkin, who lost at home to Cross Creek in the Final 4 last season at the buzzer on a fluke full court pass and layup.
“That loss, it fueled this run, although we would have had the same goal regardless,” says Dowse. “It was a long time, until the week of the Cross Creek game, before I watched those last 5.8 seconds again on film. I didn’t want to relive it. I felt a responsibility to the team to make sure that we could get them back and have an opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
“Just to walk in their gym, and take what they took from us, it feels very good,” adds Jones. “Hard work does really pay off.”
Throughout the last two years especially, Lumpkin County has held a #1 ranking and have been burdened with the bullseye on the back, though the team doesn’t really get caught up in it.
“I think we handle it really well,” says Pierce. “We really don’t really pay attention to the bullseye on the back. we just go for what we want, and work towards it.”
Fast forward to the title game, and again adversity struck when Lumpkin found themselves turning the ball over, missing easy shots, and unable to get the 3-pointer into the mix. GAC appeared to be in control before the second-half comeback. However, early on it was Kate Jackson doing the heavy lifting when the 3-ball wasn’t able to be worked in.
“When I watched GAC in warmups, they were not as tall as I thought,” says Dowse. “I knew we could get Kate involved early and loosen up pressure on 3-point shooters, although that pressure never really let up. “At the half, we didn’t change anything, but we reminded ourselves of the game plan. As the game wore on and by the time we got to that fourth quarter, we were playing our game. I could see a little bit of the swagger, a little bit of the confidence, and I felt like we had a good chance.”
The offense got going, and Jackson was involved early and often, and then Pierce, Jones, and Mullinax began to hit shot after shot. Jackson ended up with the State Championship game MVP honors, collecting 15 points and 14 rebounds, including hitting the game-winning shot with 34 seconds left.
“Ciera’s [Brooks] pass was so great,” recalls Jackson. “I wasn’t thinking about anything, I just wanted to win. I just made the layup, and then Mary hit the free throws to seal it at the end.”
Her layup made it 49-47 with 36 seconds to go, then Mullinax went to the line with a chance to seal the deal with 3.9 seconds remaining. She nailed both.
“Throughout the game I was not playing my usual game,” admits Mullinax. “But when it came down to the free throws, my dad has always told me, ‘free throws are free, you have to make them.’ All the practice of shooting free throws, I didn’t really think about it.”
What’s next for the Lumpkin County Indians? Well, with Jones, Mullinax, and Jackson all returning as seniors, and Jones, Brooks, and Ava Jones all coming back for their junior year among others, it’s repeat time in 2022-23.