It didn't come easy for the Wesleyan Lady Wolves, but they're the Class A-Private state champions. Down by a huge deficit late in the first half, they rallied behind the clutch play of seniors Mikayla Coombs and Natalie Armstrong to pull away with a 51-48 title game win on Friday at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion.
For Lady Wolves coach Jan Azar, the win represents her 12th girls state title, a state record.
"Every (title) is really special," Azar said. "This one will be really, really special and one that I'll always remember because I don't remember a state championship where we've ever been down like that and fought back that hard to win."
Wesleyan (28-4) pulled out the win despite trailing 32-15 with 4:48 remaining in the first half. They managed to cut the lead with a 9-0 run after that and went into halftime trailing 34-27 behind Coombs' 10 second-quarter points.
The Lady Wolves took advantage of an abysmal Lady Golden Bears third quarter -- Holy Innocents' shot just 2 of 14 from the field -- to pull within a 41-41 tie. They took their first lead of the game at 49-48 with 1:55 remaining on a Sutton West layup, a lead they never relinquished. Coombs and Jameson Kavel each hit a free throw inside the game's final minute to bring the score to its final margin.
Armstrong, a 6-foot-3 center who will play for Samford next season, finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, and made big plays in the fourth quarter. She had 4 points, 1 rebound and 1 block in the final 4:38 after returning from an illness. She subbed out with six minutes remaining and got sick in the locker room tunnel, with Wesleyan trailing 44-43.
"I started throwing up at halftime," Armstrong said. "I don't know why, but sometimes my nerves get rowdy. I didn't feel myself getting nervous at all. But I wanted to play through it, so I went back out...I just thought about it being my last time playing with my friends and the senior class, and there's no sickness that can stop me from playing hard with them."
While Armstrong finished strong, Coombs was the steady force for Wesleyan throughout. She finished with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting and added nine rebounds.
Coombs, one of the top guards in the country, will play for UConn next season. She sat out with a torn ACL in 2015 when Wesleyan won its last title, with Friday marking the first title-winning game she's played in.
"In the first half, we wouldn't have been in the game if Mikayla hadn't taken over," Azar said. "It's been a pleasure and a joy to coach her because she's easy to coach."
Azar admitted the team was "nervous and worried" when the Lady Wolves fell into their first-half hole, but Coombs said the Lady Wolves regrouped at halftime.
"When we went into the locker room, coach Azar just told us to keep our heads up," Coombs said. "In the first half, we weren't doing the things we should have been doing. So we just came out in the second half and, play by play, we cut at the lead, so that's all we had to do."
For the Lady Golden Bears (29-3), they initially appeared to be on their way to a second consecutive state title over Wesleyan, a team they were meeting in the championship game for the third year in a row. They won their first-ever title last season, beating Wesleyan in the AA title game, one season after Wesleyan beat them in the 2015 AA title game.
The Lady Golden Bears came out strong, opening a double-digit lead with 7:23 remaining in the first half and maintaining it until Coombs' 3-pointer with 10 seconds left cut the lead to seven. Then they let the Lady Wolves back into the game with their second quarter struggles, which included two missed wide-open layups.
Holy Innocents' had opportunities to retake the lead after West's layup, but went 0-for-6 from the field in the final minute. Kennedy Suttle led the team with 16 points and 13 rebounds, followed by Kaila Hubbard (10 points, 4 assists) and Khayla Pointer (10 points, 4 assists).
For first-year coach Nichole Dixon, the loss was hard to take. She spent the previous decade as an assistant on Azar's staff before taking over the Holy Innocents' program when Tony Watkins stepped down after last season.
"I felt like our girls played hard," Dixon said. "At the end of the game, we just couldn't get shots to fall...I'm very proud of them."
To say the Lady Wolves' win further cements their dynasty would be an understatement. All 12 of Azar's championships have come since 2002 and the Lady Wolves have appeared in the title game 16 of the past 17 seasons, making this one of the greatest runs in the history of high school basketball.
Azar credits this season's win to her players never giving up.
"That game was about heart and desire," Azar said. "We have eight seniors and they wanted it. And I'm proud of them."