From the Archives: Taking a journey through the AHS Pantherettes’ historic 1966 basketball season; part eight
By MICHAEL MURRAY
Editor’s Note: Here at the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR), we’re very proud of our area’s rich history of sporting excellence.
Our readers will remember that we recently decided to take off on a journey down memory lane and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Americus High School (AHS) Pantherettes basketball team’s sweep of the state championship tournament, which left the AHS ladies at the top of the Georgia heap with an impressive 22-1 record on the season.
In our latest installment of the series, we discussed the Pantherettes’ first loss of the season; a narrow 59-54 defeat at the hands of Bacon County. Despite dropping the region 1-A championship match, the Americus ladies quickly picked themselves up and got back to work as they had a much more important target in mind; the state championship.
At the conclusion of our previous article, the Pantherettes had just earned a spot in round two of the state championship with a massive 71-44 victory over North Cobb. Following the team’s advancement, the local ladies immediately geared up to take on their next challenger; Monroe Area.
In the March 5, 1966 edition of the ATR, former sports editor, Clarence Graddick, penned an article on the team’s upcoming state championship match-up and the previous evening’s action, titled, “Pantherettes Shoot for 1st Girls State Title for AHS”.
“The Americus High Girls will be shooting to bring home the first state girls’ championship here tonight when they take on the Cochran girls in the finals…,” Graddick wrote. “Americus and Cochran gained the finals in come-from-behind wins in the semifinals Friday night. Americus topped a smooth-working Monroe Area team 65-54 and Cochran barely edged the defending champions, Bacon County, 55-52…”
Graddick went on to praise the team’s hardwood performance, writing, “Stalwart defense and timely shooting by sophomore reserve forward, Linda Montgomery, brought the Pantherettes up from a 4-14 deficit to an 11-point win over the losers. The three starting guards, Sherrell Bailey, Pam Tyler, and Sandra Belcher, as well as substitute, Irene Manning, clamped down on the talented Monroe forwards enough in the second and third quarters to allow the Americus forwards to find their shooting eye.
“Montgomery came on in the first quarter to score six of the first eight points for the winners and pull Americus within five points of the Monroe girls, who were leading at the end of the first period, 16-11. Montgomery’s two-pointer also put the Pantherettes in a tie with Monroe for the first time at 17-17.
“Jean Posey and Deborah Mason began to hit at this time but, again, it was Montgomery who put the Americus girls ahead to stay in the third quarter as she tied it at 34-34 with a field goal and hit another to make it 36-34. Montgomery wound up the game with 20 points but Posey led the Americus scoring with 29. Mason was also in double figures with 14.
“Jean Henson led all scorers with 35 points despite a good guarding job by the Pantherettes in general and Manning, in particular. Manning matched Henson in height and was able to hold her turn-around jump shot until she ran into foul trouble and eventually fouled out. Judy Coker added 12 points to the losing cause.
“The Americus forwards and guards turned in a good floor game again and showed championship form in remaining calm and pulling out of the deep hole the team was in in the first quarter. Posey and Belcher led in rebounds with each player pulling in six.
“Both teams shot well from the foul line with Americus hitting 19 of 25 for 76 percent and Monroe bagging 18 of 24 for 75 percent. The Americus forwards hit 23 field goals to 18 for Monroe with Posey and Montgomery dividing the honors here with nine each but Henson led in the game with 10.”
The article went on to say that the Cochran team would likely be playing in the title match without one of the team’s starting guards due to an injury the previous evening.
When, at last, the big moment came, Graddick was, of course, on the scene to chronicle the team’s victory, which he did in a March 7, 1966 article that was splayed across the ATR’s sports page with the words, “PANTHERETTES WIN STATE CAGE TITLE” in all caps.
“The Americus High girls’ basketball team made their debut on television and won the accolades of the Americus fans in bringing home the first state basketball championship for girls in the school’s history with a 62-56 win over the Cochran girls here Saturday night in the first game of the Class-A finals…,” Graddick excitedly wrote. “The girls’ game was close all the way although Americus led throughout the last three quarters. Each team held the lead six times in the first quarter and the game was tied twice during that period.
“With only 16 seconds left in the initial period, Linda Montgomery hit a lay-up to put Americus in the lead to stay at 17-15. The champions then stretched the lead to 31-24 by the half behind the sharp shooting of Jean Posey. This was the longest lead held by Americus during the game, although it was matched several times in the last half.
“Posey led all scorers in the game as she came up with 39 points and was largely responsible for holding off a determined Cochran team. The Cochran girls had been forced to come from behind in both games they had played to reach the finals and put on several spurts which brought them within three points of the winners. The closest they came was two points as the score read 50-48 with but three minutes left in the game.
“The Americus guards again proved that it takes more than scoring to win a game as they turned in another excellent game on defense. Coach Melvin Kinslow used four guards, interchangeably, and they all performed well during the battle.
“Sherrell Bailey, Pam Tyler, and Sandra Belcher were the starters at guard and Irene Manning played much of the game as a substitute. Manning was the top rebounder with 10 and Bailey was next with six.
“Deborah Mason also hit on double figures with 10 points and the other starting forward, Jean Turpin, accounted for four points. Montgomery added nine points to the winning cause.
“A neutral observer was heard to remark during the course of the game that he had never seen a finer set of forwards than those playing for Americus. The remark included the all-around floor play as well as the fine shooting of the four used mostly by Coach Kinslow.
“While Americus was winning the game, the Cochran team was not idle and gave a good account of themselves on the floor. Joyce Brown led her team in defeat with 32 points and Loretta Francis contributed 15 and was a good source of constant trouble for the Americus guards with her rebounding ability.
“The Americus team climaxed a long road to the state title which saw the seniors on the team win 64 games in the last three years while losing only nine. A few who may have played as freshmen can boast of an 82-12 record which coincides with Coach Kinslow’s record in the four years that he has been a coach of the girls’ team.
“In the past two years, the Americus girls have gone undefeated in regular-season play but have lost three games during this time while winning 44. Ironically enough, the Region 1-A championship has escaped them both years and this is the first year that they were in the state tournament.
“This year’s record for the girls stands at 22-1. The only loss coming at the hands of Bacon County in the region finals. Bacon lost to Cochran in the semifinals of state play.
With the victory, the Pantherettes had solidified their claim to the Georgia women’s basketball throne for the next year. In the wake of the historic win, four members of the Pantherettes would be named to the 12-member All-Tournament squad. According to Graddick’s writing on the appointments, “Jean Posey of Americus and Joyce Brown deadlocked as the girls’ most valuable player…”
Mason joined Posey as the other forward selected for the team, followed by Belcher and Bailey, who would be filling the guard positions on the squad.
Posey wound up as the leading scorer of the tournament with 91 points over three games, followed by Mason with 52 points throughout the series. Montgomery brought up the rear for the Pantherettes with 34 points over three days’ action.
The championship match had drawn over 2,700 spectators, with the four-day total attendance of the tournament topping off at over 8,700.
With their historic achievement, the Pantherettes had won the adoration of sports fans from all over Georgia. The team’s members received congratulatory messages from all corners of the state and a parade was held in their honor. The players and coaches were honored at banquets hosted by the Lion’s Club, the Kiwanis Club, and the local Civitan Club.
Irene Walker (formerly Manning) recently sat down with the Times-Recorder to discuss the team’s state championship victory.
“I can remember the championship like it was yesterday,” Manning began. “We had won on Friday night and Coach Wallace Lloyd, Coach Kinslow’s assistant… He and Coach Kinslow stayed and watched the two teams that were going to play after us. We were going to play the winner of that game [for the championship]. They stayed and watched that game after we went home. They called a Saturday morning practice. They had scouted the game so they knew what we were up against and what they would be running. He showed us how to defend against their strategy. “
“They had one play that really worked well,” Walker continued. “It pulled the post guard out of place and their forward went on to the basket and got the easy lay-up. Well see, [Kinslow] showed us how to defend against that and I remember, that night… I didn’t start the game, but I went in shortly after the game began. The first time they tried to run that play, I fell into place between their girl trying to pass the ball to the one under the basket and I thought to myself, ‘It worked! It worked!’ Our strategy worked. They didn’t get the pass through.’”
On the team’s reaction to winning the state championship title, Walker excitedly said, “I remember that, when the game was over, I ran off the court crying my eyes out. I found my mama and daddy and hugged them and just cried and cried. I still get emotional today, thinking about it. We had worked so hard for those two years to get there. I remember that we were all in the big huddle just laughing. [The other girls] may have been crying, too, but I remember that I was crying like everything…”
Those girls that won this year… I know they had to be emotional, too,” she continued, referring to the 2016 Americus-Sumter Lady Panthers, who earned their own state championship victory in March.
“After we won, the clubs in town gave us a banquet in the evening, so we had a banquet that year,” Walker added. “Coach Jack Finklea (half of the namesake for the current Americus-Sumter High School football stadium, Finklea-Robinson Field) was at the ballgame that night. He was quite a character and he had a reputation for being kind of absent-minded. At one of the banquets, he got up and, when he was speaking, he said, ‘When the game was over that night, I was eating a sandwich. When I put this jacket on to come here tonight, I found the other half of that sandwich.’ He had gotten so caught up in the game that put the sandwich in his pocket and forgotten all about it.”
Walker said that she attributes the team’s unprecedented success to the team’s coaching staff.
“[Coach Kinslow] must have a great camaraderie with teenagers. He must, because he gets his point across and they work hard for him. We worked hard for him. I really enjoyed it… Every minute of it. I think that most all of the other girls did, too… Coach Kinslow was hard, but that’s what it takes. You can’t be somebody’s best friend in that position. You have to make them mad sometimes.”
She went on to say that she was very happy that her son had had the chance to be coached by Kinslow, as a member of the 1999 Southland Academy Raiders basketball team. “They played in the state championship that year,” she said. “The year before, they had lost their coach. As [my son] was going into his senior year, I said, ‘I hope he gets Melvin Kinslow.’ And sure enough, Melvin got to be coach that year of the boys’ basketball team. My son came home and said, ‘Mama, I can’t believe that the same man that coached my mom in high school is going to coach me in high school. I said, ‘We won a state championship,’ and he agreed. They went to the state championship that year, but they did not win. They sure played a good game, though. They put up a good fight.”
Sherrell Bailey echoed these sentiments in a recent interview as well. Bailey sung the praises of the team’s coaching staff, saying that a great deal of the team’s success was due, in part, to the hard work of Kinslow and one of the team’s assistant coaches, Doug Parrish.
“It was a team concept, and I think that’s really important,” she said. “I think that [the current Lady Panthers’ current head coach, Sherri Harris] is all about that, too. It’s a team concept where everybody has to work together. It just doesn’t work if you have people playing in isolation. It’s about keeping camaraderie among the girls and keeping the drama down…
“Every game was approached from his standpoint of preparation and knowing who you were up against and what kind of team they had and where their strengths and weaknesses were. We had to learn to defend their strengths and our offense had to learn to play to their defensive weaknesses. It was all about strategy. We went into every game knowing the three girls I was going to be defending… There wasn’t a game that I went into in which I didn’t already know something, from Coach Kinslow, about all of those girls that I would be up against… He definitely did his homework.”
Asked about the team’s reception in Americus when they returned as champions, Bailey said, “We did have a parade and we had an awards banquet sponsored by Kiwanis… People verbally expressed their appreciation and pride and there was a big following going to all of the games. Of course, there was a lot of hoopla at the high school…”
Bailey went on to praise the 2016 team, saying that she had followed the team’s progress throughout the season and attended the team’s victory celebration.
Until recently, Bailey continued to serve the Lady Panthers by keeping stats for the team at home games.
And just like that, the 1966 Pantherettes had etched their names into local sports history with an achievement that would not be duplicated for half a century.
Be sure to visit us soon, as the ATR will soon be taking another trip down memory lane to commemorate the Southland Academy Raiders’ epic 1986 football season, which resulted in yet another local state championship victory.
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