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'Supposed to be our down year': Young Murray County team continues pushing program's resurgence with Final Four appearance

Mar. 1—Murray County High School head girls basketball coach Chris Tipton said he wouldn't have blamed any outside observers for thinking this year's squad of Lady Indians might not find the same success that last year's did.

A pair of 1,000-point career scorers — Ella Dotson and Mattie Nuckolls — graduated alongside another senior starter in Kiersten Hixson. This year's team was set to feature just one senior and one junior in the starting lineup and a whole lot of freshmen and sophomores in heavy rotation.

So, after last year's heights — winning a region championship for the first time in more than 50 years and advancing to the 2A Elite 8 — it was understandable, Tipton said, if fans outside the program didn't expect the same.

And, they were right.

It hasn't been the same.

This year's Murray County Indians have made an even deeper run.

"This is supposed to be our down year," Tipton said. "The team plays well together and so much for each other, that, what we thought could be a down year turned out to be an up year."

Murray County plays two-time defending champions Mount Paran Christian at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Class 2A state semifinals. The game is at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. It's the first time that Murray County has reached the Final Four since 1966. Now, the Lady Indians are thinking state title, which would be their first since 1965.

"It's special for them to come together like this," Tipton said. "Any time you can have them work hard, and you can show them the results of it, it's just magical."

Without Nuckolls, Dotson and Hixson, new leaders have stepped in to keep up the resurgence of Murray County basketball.

Forward Skyler Mahoney is the lone senior starter, helping boost an excellent Murray defense from the middle and swatting and contesting shots with her all-region volleyball skills. Junior Bayleigh Winkler provides scoring punch down low.

Sophomore guard Callan Ledford stepped up in role after the departure of last year's seniors to become a go-to perimeter scoring threat, and sophomore point guard Emma Blaylock steps in to help run the offense.

"There wasn't those one or two players that we could just throw the ball in and say 'do something for us,'" Tipton said. "So that helped us rely on each other and pass the ball better."

A pair of freshmen also get big minutes. Miley McClure brings shooting, slashing and scoring. The Lady Indians might be missing a Dotson from last year's team after the departure of Ella, but younger sister Hadley has stepped right into Ella's No. 23 jersey, and Tipton calls her "one of the top defenders in the state."

"For the girls last year to go to the Elite 8, they saw it this year, and they knew they could do it," Tipton said. "That talks about the culture and legacy that those seniors last year left. Once you saw it happen, that belief system comes in."

Now, that belief is put to the test against Mount Paran. The two-time defending champs are 27-3 this season. They enter the semifinals on a 13-game win streak, including wins by at least 31 points in each of the three rounds of the playoffs this season.

"When you're two-time defending state champs, they're thinking 'Why not a third?'" Tipton said.

Mount Paran's first-round opponent was Murray's Region 7-2A mate Rockmart, and that game ended with a 76-29 win. Murray swept three games with Rockmart this season, winning 65-35, 75-28 and 70-54.

Tipton said Mount Paran presents many challenges, but the two most glaring are a pair of frontcourt stars, Jessica Fields and Ciara Alexander, both standing at taller than 6 feet.

"You've got to overcome two of the top post players in the state," Tipton said. "They hang their hat on those two bigs, and that will be really the key. Can we slow those two down?"

Information on the Eagles isn't new to Tipton. He's known all season that this potential matchup could loom. He said the same about a potential meeting with Butler, Murray's Elite 8 opponent, so the Lady Indians played them in summer ball. Butler beat Murray by three over the summer, but the Lady Indians won 52-49 when it counted.

"I've had film on Mount Paran since probably the beginning of the year, because I thought that's probably who we'd be playing if we made it this far," Tipton said.

Mount Paran has scored at least 76 points in each of its three playoff games, including 86 in an 86-55 romp over Dodge County in the Elite 8.

But Tipton has confidence in the Murray defense to slow down the Eagles, and with good reason.

In 30 games played, Murray has allowed 49 points or more in just seven. Teams have cracked 60 just twice.

"That kind of tells you what we hang our hat on is," Tipton said. "They haven't played a defense like ours, and we haven't faced two bigs like theirs."

The belief and buy-in from Murray was warranted through the Elite 8. The returning members of last year's team had been to the quarterfinals before, and the new members had seen it done.

Now, in the Final Four, it's uncharted territory for the Lady Indians.

"And then, it's more about us," Tipton said. "Can we handle the moment and handle the pressure?"

Waiting on the other side of the semifinal game would be either Josey or Central Macon. Those two play in the other semifinal earlier Saturday.

But Tipton said Mount Paran vs. Murray may decide the state championship.

"I truly believe the winner of our game Saturday will win the state title," he said. "No doubt about it, we'll have to play great. But it's very possible."