Nichols simply wasn't going to be denied a trip to Birmingham during the Class 4A Northeast Basketball Regional Final at Jacksonville State University's Pete Mathews Coliseum. She posted a game-high 32 points, including a beyond half-court shot to end the first quarter, in leading the Lady Tigers to a 54-44 victory.
Nichols, the Class 4A Northeast Regional Most Valuable Player, also had seven rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals in propelling the seventh-ranked Lady Tigers (24-6) to the state semifinals. It will be their first appearance in Birmingham since 2005.
Tenth-ranked Cherokee County's season ends at 25-7.
"We had a hand in her face, even when she made the one on the other end of the floor too," Cherokee County coach Travis Barnes said. "I think she had the mentality and the mindset she wasn't being stopped today, no matter how many girls we put on her. We had two, sometimes three girls on her. I think she had two shots where she didn't have a hand in her face. She just came ready to play, and my hat's off to her."
Nichols was limited to 13 points against Anniston in the regional semifinals on Tuesday, but she seemingly had the touch of gold against Cherokee County.
"I knew this was a big game, and everybody wanted it," Nichols said. "I try to give my best every time, and it just works out for me."
Something else working against the Lady Warriors on Saturday was turnovers. Cherokee County committed 21 of them in the game.
"That's not typical for us," Barnes said. "I think our girls in the first half kind of pressed a little bit. I think they were not wanting to make mistakes. The second half was a little bit better, but the first half I think we just played a little timid."
A lot of that timidness had to do with the Lady Tigers' defensive effort, head coach Anthony Montague said.
"We won on the defensive end," Montague said. "There were times our offensive set wasn't working right, but we just played great defense and rebounded the basketball."
Cherokee County trailed 10-7 at the end of the first quarter and 23-16 at halftime. The Lady Warriors cut their deficit to four at 23-19 in the early stages of the third quarter on a 3-pointer by senior guard Darbie Rosser, but that would be as close as Cherokee County would come in the second half. The Lady Tigers went on an 11-2 run to finish off the third quarter and take a 34-21 advantage.
"Their zone was very wide," said Rosser, who finished with seven points and only one made 3-pointer. "You think you're going to be open, but as soon as you are, they're closing out on you. You really didn't have that many open shots like you want. We'd score and they'd score, but we really never got the chance to come back."
Barnes said the plan in the second half was to pick up the pace, and while the Lady Warriors managed to outscore Madison County 23-20 in the fourth quarter, but that change in strategy proved to come too late.
"The third quarter especially, we had to pick the pace up, had to extend our defense, had to speed the game up some," Barnes said. "When we did that, they made a run. Whenever we threw a punch, they threw a punch back. We scored a few points, but they'd come back and answer it."
Montague said the Lady Tigers have had trouble in the second half of games this season, but was pleased his team didn't suffer a letdown on Saturday.
"We've had big leads and we've come out of halftime thinking the game was over, but I just stressed at halftime it was 16 more minutes to Birmingham," Montague said. "That was the theme the whole time, and they come out and did a great job."
Nichols' performance outshined the double-double turned in by Cherokee County senior forward Tori Davis. She led the Lady Warriors with 19 points and 17 rebounds. Senior guard Cheslea Ray added 10 points, three assists and two steals. Senior forward Madison Brannon grabbed 14 boards and junior guard Jessen Burk finished with six points.
Rosser and Davis represented Cherokee County on the all-tournament team.
Madison Baggett contributed nine points, three steals and two assists for Madison County. Courtney Binder finished with five points.
Binder joined Nichols on the all-tournament team.
Barnes said he's proud of how successful the Lady Warriors were this season.
"It's our first time to be in a regional final in 13 years. Hopefully these girls will take something from that," he said. "This senior group, there's five of them who have been here since I've been here, and my hat's off to them for putting their name in the Cherokee County record book. They get to go out as area champs, and they get to go out as a regional runner-up."
Both Davis and Rosser shared their coach's sentiments.
"We did have a great season, and I'm proud of where we made it," Davis said. "The chemistry on our team is great. I love playing with the people I play with. We never get in fights. We never have problems on our team. We help each other. We pick each other up. We're just a great big family. It's been a great season because we've had that chemistry."
Added Rosser: "We've been playing with each other for about 10 years now. We played in the Gadsden league, and I think that really helped us. The majority of our team did play with us, so we've grown up together and that helps a lot. It's the closest team I've ever played with."