By Kim West
The East Limestone girls basketball team won four games in four days to capture the program’s first championship in the upper division finals at the Northwest Alabama Girls Christmas Tournament Saturday night.
East Limestone (15-4) seized control early and was clutch from the free throw line down the stretch as the Indians outlasted defending tournament champion West Limestone 63-57 in front of a packed gym at Lauderdale County High School, which has hosted the tournament for 25 years.
Brennan Crabtree was 9 of 11 from the free throw line, including 6 of 8 in the second half, to lead East with 18 points. Point guard Rachael Diamond had a stellar all-around game with 15 points and five assists and made several key plays on both ends of the court in the second half.
Diamond said her team set a goal this season to surpass the 15 wins from the previous season.
“It’s very exciting for us to win this tournament, and it’s something I’ve never felt before,” Diamond said. “We just had to pick up our defensive intensity in this game and stay together. Staying together is all that matters because we’re trying to get more wins than last year, and we’re going for everything this season.”
East, a Class 5A school, took advantage of ice-cold shooting from West (11-5) early in the contest as the 4A Wildcats missed 15 shots in the first quarter. The Indians raced out to an 11-2 lead as Crabtree hit a pair of jumpers and Bailey Speer and Jay Johnson each drilled a 3-pointer to propel the Indians to a 20-8 first-period advantage.
East was on the verge of putting the game away before halftime and led by 15 points midway through the second period. But West clawed back with a 10-2 run fueled by back-to-back layups from Kayla Carter and a 3-pointer from the left corner by Autumn Bates to trail 33-26 at halftime.
In the third quarter, West whittled the lead to 39-35 when Bugg Grizzard fed Bates near the top of the key for a wide-open trey. But Diamond found Paige Pettigrew for a field goal off an in-bounds play, Crabtree made a free throw and Vonelece Richardson swished a jumper near the free throw line to push the lead back to eight.
After a basket by Anna Harper Gowan and Speer’s fourth foul, the Wildcats had regained some momentum in the closing minutes of the third period, but Diamond made a 3-pointer near the half-court line as the buzzer sounded to put East ahead 47-38.
East struggled from the field in the final quarter, but the Indians went 12 of 14 from the charity stripe. Tess Vessels made East’s only field goal in the fourth period, following a Diamond block on a whirling layup attempt by Grizzard.
The Indians’ bench outscored the West reserves 11-2, including nine points from Johnson.
Carter led West with a game-high 21 points, while Bates had 12 and Grizzard added 11 points and four assists.
Lauderdale County won the lower-division title with a 57-47 victory over 2A No. 4 Red Bay Saturday. Top-ranked LCHS, the defending 3A state champion, won its own tournament for the first time since 1999.
Four teams from Limestone County — East, West, Tanner and Clements — were in the 23-team tournament field. East, West and Tanner played in the 12-team upper division, while Clements competed in the 11-team lower division.
East will play at 2A Clements Thursday, while West will host area rival Central-Florence Friday.
The Limestone County Tournament will be Jan. 19-26 at Tanner High School. The Clements girls, led by Division I recruit DaNeshia Malone, has won the county championship the past five seasons.