A basketball matchup that has become to have championship implications whenever the two teams meet happened again Saturday night, as Northpoint Christian School (NCS) and University School of Jackson, Tenn. (USJ) played again for the TSSAA Division II-A West Region girls basketball championship.
Once again, it was the Northpoint girls that had the measure of the USJ girls, as the Lady Trojans (28-2) prevailed by a 60-48 score in the title game played at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova.
"Our intensity was great, our crowd was great," Gray said, "When they (USJ) made that 7-0 run after halftime, they just lifted us back up and we pulled together. It was a championship-level game, that's for sure."
It marked the second straight year for NCS to defeat USJ, now 26-4, in the region championship. The Lady Trojans also defeated USJ last year in the state finals at Lipscomb University's Allen Arena, where they conceivably could meet again in this year's finals on Saturday, March 3.
The last time the teams had met before last year was in 2013, when the Southaven Christian school prevailed 54-52.
Both teams were assured going into Saturday's game they would receive a semifinal bye and host a state quarterfinal contest regardless of the result. But pride and the determination of who their next round's opponent might be were on the line and the Lady Trojans fought off the Lady Bruins in Northpoint's sixth consecutive visit to the region title game.
USJ took a 15-14 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Lady Trojans rallied to lead 27-22 at halftime.
The contest remained close in the third quarter until Caroline Swindoll was inserted into the lineup and she drained two of her three three-pointers for the game to help Northpoint to a 41-32 advantage heading into the final quarter.
"You're in the middle of a one-point game and Caroline getting nine points in four trips was huge," Gray said. "That's her strength, and even defensively, she made a couple of deflections down there. This is about the deepest team in about 20 years that I've had that I can count on that to get us offense off the bench."
Swindoll, who hit her final trey early in the fourth quarter, was aided in the second half by Lindley Gaines, who struck for a pair of baskets in the third period and added her own three-pointer and a pair of free throws down the stretch.
Tournament MVP Jade Wells dominated USJ inside, much as she did Tipton-Rosemark in the semifinal win Thursday night, scoring eight of her 13 points in the second quarter, including an inside layup as the first half ended.
Northpoint's Lauren Gross, a University of North Florida signee set to play there next season, tied for game-high honors with 15 points, along with USJ's Emily Jones. Six of Gross' points came on important fourth-quarter free throws that helped ice the victory.
The Lady Trojans were also helped at the free throw line, where they finished 12-of-14 for the game.
In addition to Wells as tournament MVP, Gross and Gaines were named to the all-tournament team.
With the victory, Northpoint will await the winner of Tuesday's Chattanooga Christian School vs. Providence Christian Academy (Murfreesboro) first-round state tournament game at Chattanooga and will host the survivor at Northpoint with a trip to Allen Arena in Nashville and the state semifinals on the line.
Whoever the opponent is, Gray is confident he and his coaching staff, including wife Lindy along with Ryan Richardson, will have the team ready to play.
"I'm excited for the girls and the things that are happening at our school," Gray said. "The one thing that goes unnoticed, however, is that we have the best assistant coaches in the state at any level for high school. I give them a lot of credit."
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.