COLUMBUS — Tae Smith might look like she plays recklessly at times.
But the Rutland senior is always under control, whether she is running the offense or darting into the lane to throw up an off-balanced layup.
Her patience and control were invaluable on Saturday in the Elite Eight of the GHSA Class AAA tournament.
Smith jump-started the sluggish Hurricanes (26-4) with three momentum-busting steals in the fourth quarter to lead Rutland to a 46-43 win over defending champion Kendrick and sending the Hurricanes to their first Final Four berth in school history. Rutland is also the first Bibb County team to play in the Final Four at the Coliseum in seven years.
“I just feel so great right now,” Smith said. “We’ve worked so hard to get to the Coliseum. It’s a dream.”
With all of the momentum in the game on its side, Kendrick (22-8) decided to slow down the pace.
The Cherokees ran a clock-eating delay offense to open the fourth quarter, seconds after ending the third quarter on a 6-0 run to give them their biggest lead of the game at six points.
The change of pace allowed the Hurricanes to gather themselves, and that’s when Smith decided to strike.
After about a minute of the delay, Smith reached in and snatched the ball away from Kendrick and raced to down court to make a layup.
Rutland got within two points with less than five minutes to play when Kendrick again went to its delay.
“We were just fine with them slowing it down,” Rutland head coach Johnny Dixon said. “They had momentum. It let us regroup on the floor.”
The Hurricanes again waited patiently and again Smith came up with a steal, this time getting to the basket and getting fouled. She made two free throws to tie the game. Smith got another steal seconds later and again got fouled. She made 1-of-2 to give Rutland its first lead since the third quarter.
“That’s pretty much the kind of player Tae is,” Grant said. “She makes big plays and those steals helped us win the game (Saturday).”
After Smith stole the Cherokees’ momentum, Shaquita Hodges took over.
The sophomore made two free throws with 2:30 to play to give Rutland a 44-43 lead shortly after Kendrick made two free throws to regain the lead.
The Cherokees never got into the same rhythm offensively the rest of the way, but they always stayed close enough to pose a threat.
But Simone High traveled with 33 seconds left and then plowed over Smith with 13 seconds left for an offensive foul.
“It stunned me for a second,” said Smith, who got hit so hard that he jersey came untucked. “We still had too much time left to be hurt.”
Kendrick didn’t foul Rutland with seven seconds left, allowing the Hurricanes to run off five seconds before they threw the ball out of bounds off Kendrick. The Cherokees didn’t have enough time to foul, and Hodges caught the in-bounds pass and made the layup at the buzzer for the 46-43 win.
“Oh, my God, we’re going to the Final Four at the Coliseum,” Grant said about her thoughts when Hodges’ shot went in and the buzzer sounded.
Rutland stayed in control through the early part of the game. The Hurricanes had little trouble breaking Kendrick’s trademark full-court press as it built an early seven-point lead.
But the onslaught of the Kendrick press finally caught up with the Hurricanes in the second half. They continued to get the ball across midcourt but often lost the ball in the halfcourt as the Cherokees trapped on came from behind to poke the ball loose.
“They are a great team and they gave us some trouble,” Smith said. “We couldn’t really get settled.”