'Secret weapon' Burgess helps lead Lady Devils to victory

Jan. 6—TIFTON — Veternas High won the Region 1-6A girls basketball championship in 2022-23, but last Friday night at The Palace, the Tift County Lady Devils struck the first blow in the season series between the two.

"They wanted it tonight," said Lady Devils Julie Conner-Johnson, whose team took a 57-46 final, their 10th win of the season overall. The season's region debut for the Blue Devils, unfortunately, was a heartbreaker, a 54-48 Veterans comeback.

Both Tift squads played at Thomas County Central Saturday in rare early afternoon contests. They will have road trips to Houston County and Northside next week before coming home to face Lee County Jan. 13

Veterans entered Friday eighth in MaxPreps' Class 6A rankings to Tift's fourth. The Lady Warhawks won two out of three games in the series last year, all three classics. This one was a barnburner, too, a very physical contest that caused Conner-Johnson to immediately react, "Oh my," at its conclusion.

The Lady Devils had a 29-27 halftime lead, but three minutes into the 3rd frame, three-pointers by Gabby Minus and Jessie Ortiz put the visitors ahead, 35-31.

By the end of the quarter, Tift was back up, 41-37. It was a physical five minutes. Jalaya Miller hit two free throws to get the Lady Devils within a basket. Seconds later, Faith Hillmon took her second charge of the quarter and it might have been a game-changer.

More than any other defensive plays, "all those charges for Faith," stuck out to Conner-Johnson.

Miller scored on the ensuing possession on an assist by Caitlyn Burgess to tie, then took the lead at 3:39 on a score by Makayla Bryant, adding to it on a short jumper by Hillmon. Veterans broke its four-minute slumber on a runner by Nariah Nelson, but Burgess made two free throws with 20 seconds left for a 41-37 score through three quarters.

Jimmya Cushion buried a wide open three early in the 4th. Rionna Byrd hit a shot and the Lady Warhawks had their chances to stay close in the opening two minutes, but made only one of four shots from the stripe.

Miller made them pay with two baskets and when Burgess hit from beyond the arc again at 5:25, the Lady Devils were ahead 51-40 and it felt like the wind was gone from Veterans' sails. Even when a Byrd bucket close to 51-45 with 3:30 left, Veterans never seemed a threat. Miller was left wide open in the post and Burgess hit again from deep to get back to an 11-point margin at 2:20.

Veterans elected not to aggressively foul and each team netted only a free throw each the rest of the way.

Friday's opening half was back-and-forth.

Byrd and Minus staked the Lady Warhawks to a four-point advantage in the 1st, but an 11-0 run by Tift to close the quarter and open the 2nd put them ahead, 18-11.

That didn't last.

Ortiz was a dynamo from 3-point distance during the half, with three in the 2nd period alone. The third gave Veterans a 27-25 lead with 55 seconds to go. The Lady Devils had the last blow, however. With one second showing on the clock, Jalaiah Rainey banked in a three.

Burgess led all scorers with 18 points. Conner-Johnson dubbed her Tift's "secret weapon" against Veterans — and against other teams in 1-6A. Burgess has played three seasons for the Lady Devils, but spent last year at Turner County. Burgess is the team's leading scorer so far this season, with 204 points in 13 games.

Miller added 17 points to Tift's total with Cushion scoring 10. Hillmon netted six points and continued to be a force everywhere on the court.

Minus scored 15 for Veterans, with Ortiz at 12 points. The game might end up being tougher for the Lady Warhawks than the score. Des Seaton had to be helped by trainers in the 2nd quarter with a leg injury. She attempted to jog off the court, but the leg gave way again at Veterans' bench. Seaton did not return.


Head coach Tommy Blackshear's Blue Devils continued to show gains on offense Friday night, even without the services of McKyler Horne.

However, the young Tift crew has sometimes struggled to close out games. Against Veterans that bit them, with the Warhawks making up a 16-point 2nd half deficit to win.

Chandler Thomas and Tone Scott were a two-man wrecking crew for the Warhawks in a wild 3rd. The two combined for every last one of the visitors' 18 points in the frame, whittling the Devils' 37-21 lead to 39-37 at the horn.

Tift took its last lead at 5:37 in the 4th, Kaden Lawson completing a three-point play at the line. Aiden Sweenor's three had Vets back in front at 46-44.

The Devils stuck around until the end, but on top of Horne's absence, were hampered by foul trouble for Malachi Evans and Jaden Nelson. Lawson's put-back cut it to 47-46 and J.J. Lamar drove in to have the Devils down 50-48. But Scott, who helped carry the Warhawks in the 3rd, had a miracle shot go in with 40 seconds left, then sealed with free throws.

Tift County's first 17 minutes against Veterans were everything they wanted.

Following a Quay Bell offensive rebound that tied the score 8-8 in the 1st, the Devils hit nearly everything they attempted. Tristan Boone's deep three gave them an 11-10 lead. Evans came out of a scramble to make a runner with three seconds showing for a 13-13 lead the end of the 1st.

Veterans briefly led in the 2nd at 16-13, but the Devils then went off for 13 consecutive points. Evans made a baseline drive in the last minute and even a blocked shot turned into points. Veterans' shot block went out of bounds with 1.8 to go and Corey Howard found an opening under the goal to score on the inbounds pass.

Up 32-19 at the break, TeShawn Bryant made a three to start the 3rd and the Blue Devils stood at the top of the mount, up 16, on a jumper by Lawson.

Thomas scored 22 for the Warhawks with Scott at 19 points.

Bryant scored 11 for Tift with Howard at 10. Lawson added 8 points and Lamar and Evans each had 7. The Devils are now 7-5 for the year.

Tift will take on Lee County Saturday in its Winter Homecoming game. Weather caused the postponement of TCHS' Tuesday contests at Houston County.

Varsity opening tip is at 6 p.m.