The River Ridge girls basketball team was ranked No. 1 and seeking its first state championship when it entered the 2022 Class 6A playoffs.
Instead, the Knights lost to eventual champion Lovejoy 71-59 in the quarterfinals and had to watch as the Wildcats went on to win their second state title in five years.
River Ridge, again ranked No. 1, had waited a year for a chance to avenge that loss, and the Knights reached that goal when they defeated Lovejoy 68-50 Friday at the Macon Coliseum in the Class 6A final.
“This has been stressful, probably the most stressful season, because from the get-go we were preseason No. 1,” River Ridge coach Jason Taylor said after the game. “There was a big old bull’s-eye on our back all season long to stay No. 1, and we didn’t let go of it.”
Senior guard Mataya Gayle, the Region 6 player of the year, led the way with 25 points, including eight during a 13-2 run in the second quarter that turned a 19-17 lead into a 32-19 advantage with less than three minutes remaining in the half. Lovejoy never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
La’Nya Foster, the Region 3 player of the year, led Lovejoy with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
River Ridge won its five playoff games – against Alexander, Blessed Trinity, Marist, Hughes and Lovejoy – by an average of 20.4 points. No game was closer, in terms of final margin, than its 60-46 victory over Hughes in the semifinals, a game the Knights led 60-36 with about three minutes remaining before the Panthers scored the game’s final eight points against the River Ridge reserves.
River Ridge finished the season 27-5 and was undefeated against Georgia teams, including a 70-59 victory over Class 7A champion Brookwood in early December. The Knights’ only losses came against Hoover and Hazel Green of Alabama, Olmsted Falls and Pickerington Central of Ohio, and The Webb School of Tennessee. Hoover, Hazel Green and The Webb School were state champions, Olmsted Falls was a state runner-up, and Pickerington Central lost to Olmsted Falls in the semifinals.
“We scheduled maybe one of the toughest schedules that anybody has played in Georgia, with the No. 10, 11 and 13 teams in the country that all won state championships,” Taylor said. “Then there was everybody else in Georgia like Brookwood and Buford and Cherokee and Carver-Columbus, which pressured us for 32 straight minutes. We went out and intentionally scheduled it. I didn’t know exactly how we would handle that schedule, but we scheduled that way to try to prepare us for this moment.”
The girls tournament was relatively free from major upsets, although three unranked teams reached the quarterfinals. Gainesville, the No. 4 seed from Region 8, defeated Sprayberry and Woodstock before losing to Lovejoy in the quarters. Sequoyah, the 2022 state runner-up and a No. 3 seed this season, beat Douglas County and surprised then-No. 10 North Forsyth before losing to Brunswick. Marist, which was unranked despite being the Region 4 champion and carrying a 24-2 record into the tournament, proved it probably belonged in the top 10 all along when it defeated then-No. 7 Forest Park and No. 10 Tift County in the first two rounds before losing to River Ridge.
Gayle and Foster were among the nine players who received region player of the year recognition in Class 6A. Others were Lee County’s Kennedy Snead and Tift County’s Jimmya Cushion in Region 1, Shamya Flanders of Brunswick in Region 2, Kate Harpring of Marist in Region 4, Kyla Greene of Hughes in Region 5, Christa Lair of Blessed Trinity in Region 7, and Kyia Barrett of Habersham Central in Region 8.
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