FLORENCE — Lauderdale County couldn’t deliver the knockout blow, and an 11-point fourth quarter lead dwindled to four in the final minute of Saturday’s Class 3A, Area 16 girls high school basketball tournament final.
Top-ranked Mars Hill had the momentum and the ball. That’s when Lauderdale County’s defense dug in.
From there, the second-ranked Tigers got stops on the Panthers’ final four trips, surviving the fifth meeting between the teams, 52-44.
“The games have always been a little different, but it’s always the same -- two great teams going at it,” Lauderdale County coach Brant Llewellyn said. “We got a 10-point lead, and I told them not to shoot unless the got a layup. Then we got three layups and can’t make them. We couldn’t get the knockout blow. But once they cut it to four, our half-court defense was outstanding. They didn’t get another good shot the rest of the game.”
Both teams advance to Thursday’s sub-regional round. Lauderdale County will host West Morgan, while Mars Hill has to travel to third-ranked Madison Academy.
Sub-regional winners advance to the Northwest Regional tournament at Wallace State-Hanceville, where a sixth meeting between these teams is possible.
Mars Hill trailed 48-37 on Chatara Cox’s basket with 4:37 to play, but the Panthers scored the next seven points, including a 3-pointer by Tatyana Rutherford, to pull within 48-44.
Threatening to make it a one-possession game, Mars Hill was whistled for an illegal screen with 51 seconds remaining. The Tigers made 4 of 6 free throws down the stretch and left the Panthers settling for tough, contested jump shots.
“We started getting a little tired,” Cox said. “Even after coach told us to bring (the ball) out, we were still in a rush, and we shouldn’t have been. Then we started turning it over. After that we started calming down, taking care of the ball and making our free throws.”
Cox finished with a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds. She scored 8 during the third quarter, which startered with a 10-0 Lauderdale County run that broke open a 25-all halftime tie.
“Chatara is a matchup problem for teams no matter who they put on her,” Llewellyn said. “If they put a post player on her, she can come out to the perimeter and drive. If they put a guard on her, she can post them up. She’s done a great job all year and she made some big shots.”
Emma Wallen added 13 points for the Tigers.
Mary Brooke Willis led the Panthers with 18 points and six rebounds. Rutherford added 12 points and Anne Marie Mitchell totaled 13 rebounds.
After emerging as the No. 1 seed in the regular season from an area that featured three top 10-ranked teams, Mars Hill’s path doesn’t get any easier going to Madison Academy.
“The goal is to win the area championship, but you’d also love for that sub-rein game to be at home,” Llewellyn said. “Madison Academy is No. 3 in the state. If you can avoid that, you want to. This is probably the toughest area and toughest schedule we have ever played, and I love these kids to death.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bappster on Twitter.