The River Ridge girls basketball team had waited a little more than a year for a chance at payback.
The Knights made the most of their opportunity Friday night, avenging a loss to Lovejoy in the 2022 playoffs with a 68-50 victory over the defending-champion Wildcats in the Class 6A championship game at the Macon Coliseum.
Senior guard Mataya Gayle led the way with 25 points as the Knights won their first championship and capped off a 27-5 season in which all five losses came against out-of-state opponents. Third-ranked Lovejoy finished 26-6.
This was the first meeting between the teams since the 2022 quarterfinals, when River Ridge came in ranked No. 1 and Lovejoy was No. 2. Lovejoy won 71-59 in what was its closest game in the playoffs before going on to win its second championship in five years.
“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. “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.”
River Ridge led 19-17 early in the second quarter before a 3-pointer by Kayla Cleaveland sparked a 13-2 run that increased the lead to 32-19 with less than three minutes remaining in the half. Gayle had eight points during that stretch.
Lovejoy was back within 36-31 after Bryanna Preston opened the second-half scoring with two free throws, but River Ridge went on another 7-0 run that included a 3-pointer and a layup by Gayle to restore the lead to double digits. Lovejoy never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“She’s incredible,” Taylor said of Gayle. “She’s an incredible person, first of all. She’s a very bright student, going to UPenn in the Ivy League, just an absolute leader on the floor. She’s one of the best players in the Class of 2023. … She’s just meant so much. Players just gravitate towards her; they want to play with her, and she makes everyone on the floor better.”
River Ridge led 58-50 with about six minutes remaining but scored the final 10 points of the game for the final margin.
Gayle also led the Knights with nine rebounds and five assists. Cleaveland had 15 points and Sophia Pearl added 11. Cleaveland and Pearl are sophomores.
Lovejoy guards Preston and La’Nya Foster, who combined for 56 points in a semifinal victory over Brunswick, were held to a combined 29 in the final. Preston picked up four fouls in the first half but came back to score 10 of her 13 points in the third quarter before fouling out with 6:25 remaining in the game. Foster, the Region 3 player of the year, had 16 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four steals.
“La’Nya Foster and Bryanna Preston is probably the best guard combo in the state in any class,” Taylor said. “They are amazing. I’ve got nothing but respect for coach [Cedric] King and his program. They might have had two of the best players on the floor, but I think we had the best five on the floor. I’m very proud of how we played and how we defended them.”
River Ridge - 16-20-19-13 - 68
Lovejoy - 15-14-16-5 - 50
River Ridge (68): Sophia Pearl 11, Mataya Gayle 25, Makayla Robinson 7, Allie Sweet 5, Kayla Cleaveland 15, Sierra Reid, Octavia Hall, Avery Gaw, Niara Gayle 2, Jasmine Long, Lilly Krutz, Ayanna Blanco, Kyla Canty, Joy Tchamabe3, Alyssa Farmer.
Lovejoy (50): Bryanna Preston 13, Camiah Muldrow 4, Morgan Bone 9, La’Nya Foster 16, India McIntosh 8, Jabria Lesane, Kennedi Harley.
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