Ashley landed awkwardly on the court not even a minute into the game. She suffered a right knee injury and did not return to action. She came back to the bench later in the game with an ice pack on her knee and to walk with crutches following the game.
"I have no idea if she cut wrong or what happened, but it is a knee injury," Bates said. "It's her senior year and it's the area tournament, and I just hate it for her. She's worked hard to get to enjoy this."
Instead of letting Ashley's injury be an excuse not to play well, the Lady Wildcats rallied around their fallen teammate and posted a 43-30 victory.
Junior forward Madison Smith posted 14 points, 17 rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot to earn the tournament's Most Valuable Player honor and lead the Lady Wildcats to their 20th win of the season.
Sand Rock (20-8) will host Area 12 runner-up Section (10-18) on Thursday in sub-regional action. It's the third straight year the two teams have met in the sub-regionals. The Lady Lions ended Sand Rock's season last year.
Gaston (11-17) also advances to the sub-regionals. The Lady Bulldogs travel to Area 12 champion North Sand Mountain (28-3).
Section fell to North Sand Mountain 54-36 in other area tournament championship action on Saturday.
"It was a hard-fought game," Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said. "Gaston is so well-coached and played really hard the whole time, but I thought we handled their runs, and we stayed consistent and kept trying to score. We didn't freak out when things weren't going exactly right. We didn't panic. We kept increasing our lead to where we got a little comfortable at the end."
A big part of that comfortable lead at the end was Smith.
"She rebounded like crazy," Bates said. "There were times she was probably getting tired, but she couldn't come out. She was just rebounding so well. I think she really stepped it up, and she has at the end of the year. We have to have her on the floor, and that's the definition of being an MVP right there. I think she deserves it."
Smith said she just approached Saturday's game like she normally does.
"We knew Gaston was going to put up a fight. We knew they weren't going to lay down and die, so I just came in and did what I always do. I just worked hard and I guess it paid off," Smith said.
In Ashley's absence, Bates singled out the play of Leslie Mackey and Shelley Sonaty for coming off the bench and playing vital roles for the Lady Wildcats. Sonaty scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds, while Mackey gave the Lady Wildcats another big presence on the court.
"I was proud of both of them stepping up for us," Bates said.
Also stepping up for Sand Rock was Madison McCullough and the guard tandem of Emily Langley and Courtney Rowe.
McCullough managed seven points, seven boards, four steals, three assists and blocked a shot. Langley connected on three 3-pointers and came away with nine points. Rowe contributed four points, six steals, five rebounds and four assists.
McCullough, Rowe and Langley joined Smith on the all-tournament team.
"Big Mac (McCullough) was all over the place and played hard," Bates said. "Courtney and Emily handled the ball well tonight and got things going for us. I was proud of everybody. They deserve this."
Sand Rock led the majority of the game. The Lady Wildcats held an 11-8 advantage at the end of the first quarter and a 24-17 lead at halftime.
Sand Rock pushed its advantage to 30-22 at the end of the third quarter.
"I thought the girls did a good job of playing team defense," Bates said. "Holding them to 30 points is good. We don't score a whole lot ourselves, so we have to play defense. I was proud of them for playing team defense."
Kierra Porter led the Lady Bulldogs with 12 points. Abby Elrod added seven points and Destiny Allen finished with five points.
Porter, Allen and Elrod represented Gaston on the all-tournament team.