During their Class 2A Northeast Regional semifinal game at Jacksonville State University on Monday, Lanett threw ninth ranked Sand Rock a bit of a curve ball. The Lady Panthers opened in a zone.
Sand Rock responded well against Lanett’s zone in the first half, but things began to change in the third quarter when the Lady Panthers began to press. The result was a 45-39 loss, ending Sand Rock’s season at 21-9.
“I had our girls so ready for that (pressure defense), and I told them that first five minutes was going to be the most intense pressure they’d seen,” Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said.
“They came out and pressed us in the third quarter, and it affected us a little bit, but I thought overall we handled their speed and pressure pretty well, as far as getting the ball down the floor. We just didn’t always make good decisions on shots. We didn’t take the best high-quality shots we could.”
Behind its zone defense, Lanett (18-10) took a 9-5 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Sand Rock began to break through in the second. The Lady Wildcats outscored Lanett 15-4, thanks to a 10-0 run to open the quarter to take a 20-13 lead into halftime.
Things were looking even better for the Lady Wildcats in the early stages of the third quarter. Sophomore guard Courtney Rowe drained a 3-pointer with 5:24 left in the third to give Sand Rock its biggest lead of the game at 25-15, but the Lady Panthers turned up the defensive pressure and rallied with a 13-1 run of its own. Sand Rock led by just a bucket at 28-26 heading to the fourth.
“The full court has worked for us the past six or seven ball games. They beat us long the first few times, but the girls kept pushing,” Lanett head coach Jennifer Norris said. “That’s one thing I can say about these girls. They have resilience. They keep working and working.
“This is probably the most patient game I’ve seen them play all season, and probably in the three years I’ve been with this basketball team. We are definitely not a half-court basketball team. We go and go. We’ve pushed them into slowing the basketball down and taking care of the basketball, and they did that today, which I think helped a lot.”
Lanett took its first lead of the second half at 34-32 on a bucket by Alexis Harvey with 4:33 remaining in the game. It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
“Lanett is a very athletic team, and we knew they were going in,” Bates said. “I thought our girls handled that. They knew they could jump higher and were faster. I thought we had a really good game plan on defense to hold them down scoring-wise. We really did in the first half, but in the second half, they started hitting a few of their shots, and it really made a difference.”
Rowe and junior forward Madison Smith led the Lady Wildcats with 12 points apiece.
Smith was Sand Rock’s leading rebounder with 12 boards. Rowe pulled down seven rebounds to go along with three blocked shots and two assists.
Freshman guard Emily Langley, who was 0-for-7 from 3-point range, finished with five points.
“I think if we could have hit a few more outside, it would have opened up a little bit more on the drive inside,” Bates said. “We knew it was going to be tough, so we knew we had to open up it up a little bit more. We just didn’t hit outside today.”
Eighth-grade guard Ataiya Bridges led Lanett with 14 points, five rebounds and three steals. Junior center Miracle Mayo and junior guard Erin Boyd both netted eight points.
Harvey, a senior forward managed six points and 11 rebounds. Freshman forward Alycea Sharpe finished with six points and six boards.
“We just wanted the game to be close at the end with a chance to win it, especially with them being that athletic,” Bates said. “We were where we needed to be score-wise, but we missed some key free throws (11-of-21 for the game) down the stretch that I thought we should have made, but we were right where we needed to be as far as having a shot to win it at the end.”
Bates added she was proud of Sand Rock’s effort.
“I thought my girls played hard,” Bates said. “They’ve been playing hard at the end of the year, giving it all they’ve got. I was proud of their effort and intensity. We’re looking forward to a good future. We got here this year, and I expect us to get here for the next several years.”
Bates has good reason to believe it’s only the beginning of good things to come for her team. The Lady Wildcats lose just two seniors in Amber Ashley and Karla Rodriguez.
“Our goal was an 18-win season, and we ended with 21,” Bates said. “We won an area championship. We wanted to get to JSU, and the girls played really well against Section to get here. We do have a lot returning next year, so hopefully it’s going to make them want to work harder, sacrifice a little more and really turn it up where they can get back down here next year.”
Smith and Rowe both said now that they’ve gotten a taste of the Northeast Regional Tournament, they have the desire to get back.
“It’s pretty valuable (experience),” Smith said. “We haven’t been here in two or three years, so it felt great just to get back here. We had a really good season.”
Added Rowe: “We worked really hard to get here. Hopefully next year we’ll get even further.”