FLORENCE — Mars Hill and Lauderdale County’s girls basketball players can exhale a little.
Both sides picked up high-stakes wins in impressive fashion and extended their seasons for at least two more games beyond Thursday’s Class 3A, Area 16 tournament elimination games.
No. 2 Mars Hill used some solid interior defense, got Clements standout DaNeshia Malone in foul trouble and used a second-half run to put away a 57-33 win against the Colts.
Later, No. 1 Lauderdale County used a hot-shooting start to mount a 21-point first-quarter lead while cruising to a 69-40 win against No. 6 Deshler.
The losses ended Clements’ and Deshler’s seasons, while Lauderdale County and Mars Hill will meet for the fifth time this season Monday night in the area tournament final.
The winner earns home-court advantage in the playoffs’ sub-regional round, in which both teams have already secured berths.
Mars Hill gets physical
Malone was whistled for two fouls in the first 4 minutes of the game and picked up her third with 5 seconds left in the first half, as the Panthers took a 29-22 lead into halftime.
Malone picked up her fourth on a charging call with 2:12 left in the third quarter and took a seat on the bench for the remainder of the period.
Mars Hill had built a 37-27 lead by that point, and with Malone out, the Panthers ratcheted up their pressure defense, forcing turnovers for easy baskets.
They led 45-30 by the time Malone checked back in to start the fourth quarter and outscored the Colts 12-3 the rest of the way.
“We all know Malone is one of the best post players in the state, getting her in foul trouble nothing but helped us out,” Rutledge said. “We’ve been working on taking it to her and forcing some of those fouls with driving and penetrating.
“When we saw she was taken out, we switched to a different kind of press. That press wasn’t very successful when she was in the game, but when she was out, we were able to create some turnovers and get the momentum our way.”
Malone finished with 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting and 11 rebounds, while matching up with Mars Hill interior players Mary Brooke Willis and Addie Harrison.
Willis had a game-high 16 points and eight rebounds. Anne Marie Mitchell added 13 points, Anna Katherine Green had 10 and Tatyana Rutherford totaled eight rebounds for Mars Hill.
“I came into this game not even caring if I scored a point,” Willis said. “I just wanted to stop (Malone). We had a goal to keep her under 14 and we got it. Getting her on the bench won the game for us.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders with this game. It will be back Monday, but this felt great.”
Strong start power LCHS
Lauderdale County scored the game’s first 12 points and Emma Wallen made three of her first five 3-pointers, as the Tigers jumped out to a 26-5 first-quarter lead.
Wallen finished with a game-high 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Chatara Cox had 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting to go with 13 rebounds for Lauderdale County, and Haley Avery added 14 points.
“Everybody says when I’m hitting (3-pointers), I can’t really stop,” Wallen said. “Me and Haley, when we were on, we just said give us the ball. It could have been our last game and we didn’t want to have any regrets. We left it all on the floor.”
Lauderdale County led 46-21 at halftime, went ahead 53-23 on Avery’s jumper with 6:12 left in the third quarter and led by as 32 late in the third quarter.
Layken Coman scored a team-high 12 points to go with seven rebounds for Deshler, which will miss the sub-regional round for the second seasons after reaching the state final four the previous 11.
Meanwhile, defending 3A champion Lauderdale County is still alive to defend its crown.
“It was important to get off to a good start,” Lauderdale County coach Brant Llewellyn said. “It was such an important game and a tough matchup. We’ve had times where we’ve started games tight. But I told the girls at half time that when we play like that, it gives me chill bumps.
“You can’t help but exhale after this one. In my opinion, two top-10 teams went home after this. Now, you know now matter what happens Monday you get to play another day.”