Until Monday afternoon, Bradwell Institute girls basketball coach Faye Baker thought her team’s season was over.
Then she found out it wasn’t.
The Lady Tigers (18-9), who lost 54-35 to Tucker on Feb. 21 in the Sweet 16 of the girls Class AAAAAA state tournament, are back in the tourney after Tucker was disqualified by the Georgia High School Association for using ineligible players.
Baker said she got the news about 3:30 p.m. Monday. To call what followed a mood swing might be an understatement.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Baker, now in her 23rd season as BI’s head coach. “I’m still sort of in a daze of disbelief. You know how when the season is over, you start decompressing, start getting in another mode? And then here comes this news that you are still playing. It’s just really, really surprising.”
That shock was spread around. Baker said she called one of her team captains, who then shared the news via a players-only group chat with teammates.
“They thought the team captain was pranking them, so they started calling me, and coming by my classroom with their eyes wide open, asking, ‘is it true, is it true?’” Baker said. “They were definitely in disbelief as well.”
Despite the short notice, the Lady Tigers managed to pull all but two players together in 90 minutes to practice at 5 p.m. Monday, and they were back on the court Tuesday. They’ll face Grovetown, the team Tucker beat in the first round of the state tournament, at 7 p.m. tonight at Bradwell. It’s a team Bradwell already had film on, and Baker and her assistant coaches are now working on a game plan rather than offseason plans.
Part of that plan is packing the BI gym. Both Baker and BI Athletic Director Ken Griffin are appealing for students and local basketball fans to show up and give the Lady Tigers a boost.
“We need a big crowd,” Baker
said. “The biggest crowd ever.”
That’s in part because none of this is going to be easy for BI or, for that matter, Grovetown. The Lady Tigers have had a week off from practice. Grovetown has been off two weeks.
What’s more, the winner of Wednesday night’s game has to go on the road Thursday night to face Harrison (24-4), the Region 6-AAAAAA champs in Kennesaw.
That’s about a five-hour drive from Hinesville. It’s also back-to-back games at a time in the season when legs tend to get a bit tired.
Even more concerning, Bradwell has already played 28 games this season, and should the Lady Tigers advance to play Harrison and beat Harrison, they will then have to play Saturday night.
That’s three games in one week.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Baker said. “It’s very hard on your kids, for either us or Grovetown.”
Wednesday’s game became necessary after the GHSA said Tucker was recruiting and playing ineligible girls, most of whom were part the Georgia Pistols’ AAU program coached by a Tucker booster.
Six players now on Tucker’s roster transferred to the school this year, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, including the team’s top three scorers.
Tucker coach J.J. Oliver did not respond to an AJC request for comment, but the school is a state power in girls’ basketball, and won the Class AAAAA title in 2014 and AAAAAA runner up in 2016. Baker said she was surprised the GHSA acted in mid tournament.
“I thought if they found any validity to the allegations, they wouldn’t do anything about it until the season was over,” she said, adding there was no easy solution once the GHSA ousted Tucker from the tourney.
One option would’ve been to let BI advance, but Tucker used recruited players against Grovetown, too.
“How far back do you go?” Baker asked. “Do you go back through all the teams they played throughout the season, and all the teams Tucker beat in the region tournament that should have advanced instead? Maybe another option would have been to just allow us to go on to play the game against Harrison, since we were the last team they eliminated.”
Not that Baker is complaining.
“Any coach would welcome the opportunity to play again,” she said. “And I’ve had so many coaches and people calling to congratulate us on having another opportunity. It’s been heartwarming.”
It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come often. This is apparently the first time in GHSA history a team has been ruled out of play in the middle of a state basketball tournament, and the schools that lost in the first two rounds reinstated.
“Never in a million years would I have believed we could have lost a state tournament game and still have another opportunity to play,” Baker said.