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By David Friedlander | Photo by Jamie Spaar

SNELLVILLE, Ga. — Not even the departure of three teams in the original eight-team field could diminish the star power of the girls bracket in the 30th annual Deep South Classic during the final days of 2021.

Even with only six teams participating — one team that dropped out was replaced — one of Georgia's longest-running continuous high school basketball holiday tournaments lived up to the billing that this year's edition had, with five teams coming in with a top 10 state ranking in their respective classifications.

In the end, the tournament came down to a pair of Class 7A powerhouses against two Class A Private juggernauts, with one of the former — tournament host Brookwood — winning the title in dramatic fashion with a 52-51 win over Holy Innocents' in the final Thursday night.

“To be the best, you've got to beat the best,” said Brookwood coach Courtney Mincy after the Broncos, ranked No. 3 in most recent Class 7A state girls poll, moved to 11-3 on the season. “Holy Innocents' is one of the best teams out there, and they're very well coached. (Golden Bears coach) Nichole (Dixon) does a great job.

Four-star junior guard Diana Collins was named tournament MVP after averaging 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 4.0 steals.

She scored 11 of her 20 points in the fourth quarter in the championship game, including seven in the final 58 seconds as Brookwood overcame a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter.

“I try to get better every day by working in the gym every day,” said Collins, who followed up her performance by committing Friday to play her college ball at Georgia. “You can never stay at the same level. You have to keep getting better.”

As important as Collins' heroics were, it wasn't until Nekaya Williams drove the lane and found fellow senior Nedisha Ford for a layup with 4.5 seconds left that the Broncos gained their first lead of the game, and the only one they would need.

Williams (13 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 rpg, 3 spg for the tournament) and Ford (5.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.5 spg) joined Collins on the all-tournament team.

Meanwhile, the loss did not damper the enthusiasm Dixon had for Holy Innocents' (12-2), the top-ranked team in Class A Private that features just two seniors, plus six sophomores and highly touted freshman Hailee Swain.

Two of those sophomores, Olivia Hutcherson (15.5 ppg, 11 rpg, 2 bpg, 2 spg) and Zaynah Preston (12 ppg, 2 rpg, 3 apg) also earned all-tournament team honors.

More importantly, the young Golden Bears got valuble experience in beating Tift County and Class 7A No. 2 Grayson before Thursday's loss to Brookwood, which Dixon is convinced will serve the team well heading into region play and down the stretch to the state tournament.

“A lot of times, when you have a loss like this, especially at the end, you can point fingers,” Dixon said. “We want to either win or learn. So (Thursday) night, we want to learn from this. Most importantly, we want to learn that we need to go as a team defensively.

“Thankfully, we've got outstanding kids. They want to grow. They want to learn. I love coaching them. They're a fun group, so I'm excited to get back in the gym with them. A lot of talent, a lot of coachable kids. That's the main thing we're going to take away from this.”

Mount Paran (8-2) wound up third in the tournament, sandwiching wins over Class 7A No. 10 Cherokee and Grayson around a 57-53 semifinal loss to Brookwood.

The Eagles also got an all-tournament performance from senior forward and Georgia Tech signee Kara Dunn, who averaged 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3 steals and 1.7 blocked shots per game over three days.

Despite losses of 66-59 to Holy Innocents' and 46-44 to Mount Paran, Grayson also had a competitive tournament, with the Rams being led by Tatum Brown (11.5 ppg) and Catherine Alben (13 ppg).