Different cast has Lady Sandies back on same stage: State Tournament

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The Amarillo High Lady Sandies l open the UIL Girls Class 5A state tournament against Frisco Memorial in a semifinal on Thursday night at San Antonio’s Alamodome. [Trevor Fleeman/ Press Pass Sports]

As a name brand, the Amarillo High Lady Sandies have been as reliable as advertised for at least the last half-dozen years.

It’s that past success which explains why coach Jeff Williams and his squad expected to be packing the bus for San Antonio this week.

For the third time in five years, the Lady Sandies are in the Class 5A state tournament. They’ll conclude Thursday night’s action by taking on Frisco Memorial in the Alamodome at 8:30 p.m. in the day’s last state semifinal.

No. 5 Amarillo High (32-5) will also be trying to bring home a third state title in five seasons. So, the question is when did Williams think he had a team capable of giving him a third state championship?

“Honestly, when we started the first day of school,” said Williams without hesitation. “I really believed in this group of kids. I know that’s not necessarily the thought process everywhere.

“A lot of people said ‘I know you have a good team but I’m kind of surprised you’re back at this level.’ But to us it was not a surprise. We knew what we had.”

Williams likely isn’t going to be around long enough to match Joe Lombard’s total of 19 state championships, something no coach in this area (or most others) can realistically expect. But a third state title in such a short period would put him in some rare company among the state’s elite girls coaches.

A legacy would be cemented considering that this is a completely different team than the one which won back-to-back state titles in 2018 and 2019.

“This team plays a little different style,” Williams said. “We’re a little more get the ball inside and post-oriented, but we also have some kids who can really drive the basketball and attack in those facets. This team’s got some strengths which even those two state championship teams didn’t have. This is a really good rebounding team.”That last quality is best embodied by the team’s lone senior starter, Briley Barnes. In last week’s Region I-5A tournament wins over Mansfield Timberview and Lake Dallas, the 6-foot-1 Barnes had a pair of double-doubles.While Barnes had only 10 points in each game, she had 18 rebounds against Timberview and 10 against Lake Dallas. In the three seasons since the Lady Sandies last won state, when Barnes was a late season addition as a freshman who didn’t play, she’s emerged as the team leader.“Even just making it this far to state is something a lot of seniors don’t get to experience so I’m grateful for that, but even more so going into it knowing that we have a good chance of succeeding there is such a great feeling,” said Barnes, who has signed to play for Tulsa next season. “We had to be really careful because we lost in an early round (last year) that our skill level dictated we shouldn’t have lost in. We kind of looked up and it was like ‘Shoot, we made it to state.’”At worst, the Sandies are guaranteed of having made it at least as far as the region final in five of the last six seasons. Last year was the aberration, when they lost on a shot at the buzzer in overtime to Canutillo, 60-59 in the area round.All of the returners this season were determined to prove that was a fluke.“I think was a lot of motivation for us because as a team none of us really liked the taste that left in our mouth,” said junior Lacey Rice, who cracked the starting lineup this season and is the team’s leading 3-point shooter. “We all came back stronger and we were ready to work. We’ve been focused all year and getting here has really been great.”For better or worse, the loss to Canutillo served as a reference point this season.“The amount of times we heard the name Canutillo over the season became a joke among the players,” Barnes said. “Even there for a second the coaches would leave the score of the Canutillo game up on the scoreboard during practice, and as tired of it as we could get, I really do think that was a big factor in us consistently working hard and getting better the whole year in ways we sometimes didn’t last year.”Barnes has been as good as expected this season, averaging 12.6 points a game and leading the Lady Sandies with 7.4 rebounds a contest. But she hasn’t even been the team’s top scorer this season.That honor goes to the team’s only other returning starter, junior Mckenzie Smith. The 6-footer has used her size and athletic ability to lead the Lady Sandies in scoring with 14.8 points a game.“I knew we could,” said Smith of making the state tournament. “It started early with the 5:30 practices in the morning when the football boys were playing, staying after school and coming early to watch film. It was just a total buy-in.”And it’s obviously paid off. The Lady Sandies enter the state tournament on a 15-game winning streak. Their last loss was a 48-45 defeat to South Grand Prairie at the Mansfield Spring Creek Barbecue Invitational in December. Incidentally, South Grand Prairie is also in the state tournament, playing in the Class 6A state semifinal Friday night.In going undefeated in District 3-5A play up through now, Amarillo High has only one win by fewer than 10 points.“I think we just really started being more composed,” Williams said. “We’ve gotten to the free throw line a lot more this year than we did last year, which is also a recipe for winning. We started off not shooting the basketball as well as my teams generally do but that’s changed.”Last Saturday’s 63-42 win over Lake Dallas in the region final epitomized that approach. Amarillo High had five players score in double figures, but nobody scored more than 12 points.Rice was the only starter not to score in double figures, but with the game tied at 22-22 at halftime, she hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to help the Lady Sandies get some separation, and they led 45-29 at the end of the quarter and were able to cruise from there.“At the regional tournament I was a little nervous to shoot but I finally got comfortable and I think I’ll be good at the state tournament,” Rice said. “I’m going to continue to work on my shot here and there and build my confidence back up.”While this is Amarillo High’s seventh trip to the state tournament, this is the first for Frisco Memorial (36-5). The Lady Warriors made it by beating crosstown rival and perennial contender Frisco Liberty in the Region II-4A final, 43-35.“We watched them a little bit in person at the Frisco Tournament and we knew they were awfully good then,” said Williams of the Lady Warriors. “It’s no surprise that they’re here. Anytime you can beat a team like Frisco Liberty you’ve got to be pretty good. They’re ranked No. 3 so they’re not somebody who flew under the radar.”That obviously can be said of the Lady Sandies too. Last week they lived up to their ranking by beating No. 7 Lubbock Cooper, No. 10 Lake Dallas and No. 11 Timberview.If the Lady Sandies beat Memorial, it’s very likely they’ll face defending state champion No. 1 Cedar Park (35-0) in Saturday’s 3 p.m. championship game. Cedar Park plays College Station (31-6) in the first 5A semifinal at 7 p.m.Smith, for one, knows she’ll be dealing with some jitters.“I feel kind of nervous,” she said. “This is my first time being to state, so I knew I’d have nerves in me, but once you get out there you get relaxed. “Williams, on the other hand, has been to state and brought home two gold medals. His game plan for the girls is fairly simple.“Just really pay attention to the details of the game and make sure the things that we’re good at we continue to do and then have the mindset that this is what it takes to beat the opponent in front of you,” Williams said. “You’ve got to think about Frisco Memorial right now. To win a state championship you’ve got to win on Thursday. Focus on this, get your bodies ready, hydrate and get mentally engaged for that game Thursday night.”

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