Feb. 22—JACKSONVILLE — Anniston's girls basketball team is headed back to the Final Four.
The defending Class 4A state champions defeated Handley 52-37 in the Northeast Regional final Monday morning at Jacksonville State's Pete Mathews Coliseum.
The Bulldogs (24-3) advanced to face the Vigor-Jackson winner at Bill Harris Arena on Friday at 2 p.m.
Allasha Dudley's free-throw shooting and Asia Barclay's rebounding were big, but Anniston took down Handley with defense. The Tigers made just 9 of 42 shots (21.4 percent) and turned over the ball 18 times.
"I knew if we didn't play defense, we were not going to win this game," Anniston coach Eddie Bullock said. "I got great rebounders, great shooters, but I'm old school. I just think if you're going to win a championship, you've got to play some defense."
After a layup by Handley's Teanna Watts tied the game 13-13 with 5:12 to go in the second quarter, Anniston's defense clamped down. The Tigers didn't score the rest of the quarter, allowing the Bulldogs to take a 20-13 halftime lead.
Handley scored two quick buckets to cut the deficit to 20-17 with 6:22 to play in the third quarter, but Anniston held the Tigers to three free throws the rest of the period and led 33-20 heading into the fourth.
Dudley, who finished with a game-high 26 points and five steals, struggled to put the ball in the basket during the first half, making just 1 of 7 shots from the floor, but she more than made up for it at the free-line in the second half. The reigning 4A player of the year made 12 of 14 from the foul line after halftime.
"Coach always tells us if our jump shot is off, find another way to score," she said.
Dudley's first-half struggles were offset by the inside presence of Barclay, who had 13 of her game-high 22 rebounds and three blocks during the first two quarters.
Handley head coach Courtney Screws gave Anniston's defense all the credit for her team's offensive struggles.
"I attribute that to Anniston: their size, their speed, their athletic ability," she said. "We can't get anything off clearly in the paint because of 35 (Barclay). I mean, even Dudley, one-on-one with her, you saw how many steals she had or how many deflections she had.
"That's all because of Anniston. Nothing because we can't score; it's just because of what a good defensive team they are and how athletic they are."
Serena Hardy was Anniston's second-leading scorer with 11 points. Barclay added nine points, and Tiauna Thomas chipped in five.
Watts led Handley with 24 points. She did the majority of her damage at the free-throw line, making 18 of 20. The Tigers made 19 of 23 free throws for the game, something Bullock would like to clean up moving forward.
"We didn't do a good job of keeping them off the free-throw line. We ended up giving up 23 free throws," he said. "They were 19-for-23, and that's not good. That's not championship basketball."
Handley finished the season 22-12, falling one game short of making the Final Four for the first time in school history.
The Tigers are set to lose seniors Ariana Kyles, Jamiya Heard and Grace Rittenhouse. Screws grew emotional while describing about the impact that group has had during her time at Handley.
"These three girls have built my program. Not me, they've built it," Screws said. "It's my fifth year. They've been with me since eighth and ninth grade. I had no seniors last year, so this is really my first group that I"ve seen all the way through. So it's tough to see them go."
Assistant Sports Editor Jared Gravette: 256-235-3572. On Twitter: @Jared_Gravette.