By LARRY HYMEL, Special to the Journal
HAMMOND — It could be expected that Mikaylah Williams would score a crucial bucket, and she did, but it was two free throws by Aniya Russell and some gritty defense in the final seconds Thursday evening that provided the margin of victory for Parkway in the LHSAA Class 5A girls basketball semifinals.
The Lady Panthers held on to notch a 55-54 win over a third-seeded Lafayette team that would not go away.
Second-seeded Parkway (32-1) will play No. 4 Ponchatoula Saturday night for the state crown. The Green Wave knocked off No. 1-seeded Walker 68-59 at Southeastern’s University Center in Hammond – just few miles north of Ponchatoula.
But after the nailbiting semifinal triumph, Parkway and its coach weren’t thinking ahead. They were just breathing sighs of relief.
“We are happy to be here,” coach Gloria Williams said afterwards. “In the second half, we got more physical.”
The nip and tuck game was a showcase for the Lady Panthers’ sensational junior guard. Williams, living up to her billing as the best player in the state – maybe the nation — scored 33 points and pulled down a team-high 9 rebounds.
“I did not want to lose and go home,” she said after making that very obvious. Williams hit 11 points in the final period as Parkway repeatedly fought off Lafayette (28-6) a team it had beaten earlier in the season.
Lafayette coach Tarunye Kanonu said Williams “showed what she was capable of.”
But it was not a one-girl show. Parkway had players step up for the key rebound, the clutch basket, the vital defensive stop, in the intense battle.
The biggest Parkway lead was six points, 23-17, just before the half before Lafayette trimmed it to 23-21 at intermission. The game was tied 12 times, the last at 50 before Williams’ three-pointer with 1:40 left put Parkway ahead to stay, 53-50.
With 59 seconds remaining, Russell stepped to the free throw line and sank both her tries. The Mighty Lions’ Breylonce George dittoed that eight seconds later, and her basket with 23 seconds left drew Lafayette within 55-54.
The Lions earned a chance to win, getting the ball on a turnover with nine seconds left. Even after calling two timeouts, the last with two seconds to go, Lafayette managed only an awkward shot in the final second that was not near the basket. The Lady Panthers’ defense and some sloppy execution by the losers combined to seal their fate.
Ty’Lissa Henderson was next, behind Williams, for Parkway with six points. Chloe Larry and Russell each had five rebounds and Makenna Miles had the only two assists of the game for the winners.
Jahnya Brown led Lafayette with 19 points. George came on in the fourth quarter to give the Lions a spark, scoring all nine of her points.
The teams were even with 27 rebounds apiece, and nearly identical shooting. Parkway was 19 of 41 from the floor while Lafayette hit 19 of 44. Williams drained three treys, the only three-pointers in the game.
In its first state tournament appearance in 14 years, Parkway surpassed its semifinal advance in 2008. Saturday night, the Lady Panthers aim for the goal they set after a painful homecourt loss to Benton in last year’s playoffs.