State Tournament begins Friday at Christiansburg; 21-6 Cougars face 26-2 Millbrook

     The Pulaski County girls basketball program will renew its quest to win the Class 4 state championship again Friday evening at 6 pm at Christiansburg High School. Tipoff is 6 pm, admission $10.00 for this state quarter-final contest.
     The Cougars, 21-6 on the season after defeating E.C. Glass in Lynchburg last Friday, 70-57 to win the Region D championship will be taking on Millbrook, a strong program from Region C who lost in that region final to undefeated Loudoun Valley, 87-52 in a game that was expected to be much closer. The Pioneers are 26-2 on the season, and will make the trip down I-81 from Winchester.
     Millbrook’s talent is considerable. The team is senior dominated and led by 6-2 Ali Houck who averages 15.3 points per game and 13.5 rebounds a contest. All five starters are 6-0 or taller for the Pioneers, and the leading three-point shooter Emily McGee is 6-1. Magee, and Venessa Cooper also average in double figures for Millbrook who won the Northwestern District title. Houck started two years ago as a sophomore when Millbrook won the Class 4 state title.
     The Pioneers are noted for putting big numbers on the scoreboard, scoring 94 points on Culpeper, 91 on Skyline, 86 on  Sherando, and 82 on Handley twice. It’s hard to compare scores and such between regions because of the unknown factors, but it should be noted that every team to defeat Pulaski County was of playoff caliber and four of them are still playing, and two of them in higher classifications, so the Cougar schedule was formidable.
     And while there is certainly balance and firepower on the Millbrook team, Cougar point guard Maddie Ratcliff, power forward Ally Fleenor, and swing player Keslyn Secrist all average double figures in points scored, and Fleenor double digits in rebounds per game. Fleenor and fellow front line player Taryn Blankenship will have a nights work ahead in the battle on the backboards vs. a tall Millbrook team.
     And certainly turnovers will be huge in the game. Pulaski Co. committed a surprising 23 turnovers at Glass, but the Cougars average just under a dozen per game on the season, outstanding for girls basketball in the region this season. Each possession could count big Friday.
    “Obviously we need a very good floor game and we cannot afford to turn the ball over like that again,” says Cougar head coach Brad Sutphin. “Millbrook is pretty good. They are a long and athletic team. I would compare them to Patrick Henry (Class 5, and River Ridge winner), and our fans are certainly aware of what a good team PH has. Millbrook wants you to turn the ball over and turn it into points, so we must value each possession. We are still working on the total game plan in terms of all the things we might do or look at. A few hours of film will determine a lot, and we’ll put in the plan and work on it in practice all week. We just need to do the things that will put us in position to succeed,” said Sutphin.
    Pulaski County made a big run at the state championship last year before falling to Lake Taylor in the final. Hampton has already knocked Taylor out of the tournament this year. Sutphin says this team in many ways is much the same as last season, but is also different in many ways as well.
    “Each team is different. Nothing stays exactly the same. I think we have a little more offensive firepower than we did last season. I do believe we are a little more seasoned even though we still play two freshmen a lot. Everyone has been a part of the process and is a year older and that helps the younger ones when they get a little overwhelmed. Last Friday at Glass was a great environment that helped prepare us for what we will face going forward hopefully,” says Sutphin.
    The win at Glass was big for the program, and a very satisfying moment for this team. Glass had managed to pull to within six late in the third quarter, but Erin Russell drilled a 3-point shot after a time out, and then Ratcliff drove hard for another basket to get the Cougars off to an 8-0 run and seal the deal.
     Sutphin called timeout late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand, and took his starters out. “He just said look at what all the effort has done for ya’ll. This is what you’re worked so hard for. It was just happiness. It was an amazing moment,” said Fleenor.      The Cougars did have some turnover problems, but their shooting was dead eye all night long, hitting 28 of 46 shots, 61% for the game. Sutphin’s defensive plan worked too. He backed the Cougar defense up. He wanted Glass to prove they could make a shot from the perimeter. The Hilltoppers couldn’t, making only one of 27 three-point attempts.
     This Cougar team is a nice blend of proven veteran performers, and youthful playmaking ability and it can make shots. It’s hard to say this Cougar team is the best at any one thing, yet you can feel very confident that it’s pretty good at most everything. It’s big enough, it’s quick enough, it’s good enough. It has depth. It can break open and fly end to end. It can grind in the half court. It seems to have the ability to do whatever is required.
     “We have some young players that have emerged,” says Sutphin. “Keslyn has had a really good year, and so has Paige Huff, those are two pretty good freshmen. Paige hit some really big shots for us down at Glass, and Kesyln has been very consistent with her level of play, but really we’ve had so many girls make plays, and make them when they were most needed. Courtney Cregger has also given up valuable minutes inside, and she really battles in the paint. Kassidy Secrist brings a high IQ to the game for us, and is a real good rebounder and feeds the post well. All those kids that come off the bench have done their jobs and that’s what makes a team. Maddie, Alaina (Akers), Kassidy, Hanna (Walson), and Bailey (Nash), those girls (seniors) have been us for the full run. Aubrey O”Dell is always prepared to play. We have good leadership, good seniors, and good underclassmen, and they have blended together great. It takes all of us,” added Sutphin.
     Pulaski County has played in the girls state championship game twice, the first time in 1993, the second last year, and the goal is to make this the third time, and the first ever crown. But first things first. And first up is Millbrook.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot
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