The past three seasons, the Benton Lady Tigers have made getting to the state championship game seem routine.
But Benton head coach Mary Ward knows that it’s anything but that.
Ward’s Lady Tigers, the No. 12 seed and defending champions, face No. 6 and District 1-5A foe Captain Shreve (20-5) for the Class 5A state championship at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Southeastern University Center in Hammond.
Two years ago, Benton made its first championship game appearance, falling to Warren Easton 58-49.
“I think people are kind of like, oh, we’re back again,” Ward said after her team’s 58-48 upset of No. 1 Ponchatoula in the semifinals Wednesday. “I try to tell them do you realize how hard this is? My first playoff game was my senior year when we won it all. We didn’t even make it out of the first round for three years.”
Ward led Airline to the 1992 Class 5A championship.
To have the kind of run Benton has enjoyed Ward knows it takes talent. The Lady Tigers have had some of the best players in the state, including Ward’s daughter Emily, now at LSU, and Qua Chambers, now at ULM.
Senior guard Jada Anderson, a ULM signee who has played in the state tournament four straight years, has been an elite player throughout her high school career.
But Ward also knows talent alone isn’t enough. Building a winning culture is a big part of the process.
That combination won’t guarantee you a state championship every season obviously, but it will produce a lot of success on and off the court.
Ward started instilling that culture when she became the head coach at Benton in 2006. In her first season, the Lady Tigers won 26 games.
Five years later Benton won 32 games and reached the state tournament.
But Ward said the culture really started becoming entrenched when Emily arrived in 2015.
“That’s just something I have to go back to my daughter, Emily, the whole thing of, this is where we want to go, this is what we want to do and just being nice to everybody, getting the whole team atmosphere,” Ward said. “When we get to the playoffs level — you know how people say there’s a preseason, a regular season and a postseason — our whole mindset changes during postseason.
“And the girls expect to be here. They understand the importance. They totally get focused. And it’s just a totally different mindset and I’m proud of them. You can thank Emily for this. It’s an Emily effect. It’s a Qua effect. Hopefully, after Jada leaves she’ll have that effect on the next team and you just kind of carry it on.”
Ward said facing Captain Shreve, the 2019 state champion, is a “big task.”
The Lady Tigers edged the Lady Gators 39-37 at Benton on Jan. 8.
In that game, Benton trailed by two going into the fourth quarter.
The Lady Gators held Anderson to seven points, but sophomore guard Riley Grace Stanford stepped up with 12.
The Lady Tigers also stepped up on defense. Shreve standout Addison Martin scored 11, but no other Lady Gator was in double figures.
Saturday night’s rematch could be low-scoring again as both teams play outstanding defense.
Shreve has allowed an average of 34.5 points in the playoffs.
The Lady Gators defeated No. 27 Chalmette 64-26 in the first round, No. 11 H.L. Bourgeois 80-34 in the second, No. 3 Walker 54-46 in the quarterfinals and No. 10 West Monroe 60-51 in the semifinals.
Benton defeated No. 21 Natchitoches Central 60-55 in the first round, No. 5 Mandeville 60-51 in the second, No. 4 Parkway 49-46 in the quarterfinals and Ponchatoula.
Anderson scored 25 points against Ponchatoula and is averaging 19 points in the four playoff games.
But the Lady Tigers wouldn’t be in the finals without the contributions from Stanford, junior Ella Kate Malley, sophomore Marissa Schoth and junior forward Jada Stewart.
Stewart has especially been a force in the playoffs. She had 22 rebounds against Ponchatoula and her defensive play near the basket helped slow down the Green Waves’ top scorers.