Fight to the Finish: Lady Cougars overcome big deficit to earn area title
By By ROBERT BLANKENSHIP
Advance Managing Editor
With a capacity crowd at South Montgomery Christian Academy on their feet, either rooting for or against her, Escambia Academy's Holly Mack stepped up to the line with 6.2 seconds to go in the area championship game and stripped three straight free throws to give the Lady Cougars their first lead of the game and the championship by a score of 51-50.
The matchup between EA and area opponent Sparta Academy was the fourth of the year. In each of the previous three games, the Lady Cougars were behind at the half. Head coach Chad Pruett had said prior to the game that it would be tough to beat a good team four times, but even he could not have predicted that his team, the fourth-ranked in the state, would be down by as many as 20 points and would only score four points in the entire first period.
But, as time quickly became a factor, the Lady Cougars began to make their move. In the final period, the entire team played well as they held the Lady Warriors to only nine points while they almost doubled their score with 24 fourth period points.
EA had a terrible time out of the gate as Sparta's aggressive press defense forced several turnovers. While the Lady Cougars were attempting to adjust, the Lady Warriors were building a dominating lead as they finished the period with the score 16-4.
Sparta forced the Lady Cougars into 14 turnovers by the end of the first half. But, EA did begin to get their offense on track in the second as they scored 14 in the period. The Lady Warriors were always right there to answer however as they rattled off 15 points in the period to help them to a 31-18 lead at the half.
Pruett also said his team was not mentally down at halftime because they had been there before.
The third period was a low-scoring one for both teams. Instead of cutting into the Sparta lead, the Lady Cougars were outscored 10-9, making the score 41-27 as they entered the final period.
Down by 14 points, the Lady Cougars began a dramatic run. Mack sparked the EA offense as she lined up behind the three-point arch and stripped it home. On their next offensive series, she nailed another tray to bring the EA faithful to their feet.
Still trailing with only four minutes to go, Pruett said he made the call for the girls to move into a press defense.
The Lady Cougars did have some help down the stretch. EA began fouling Sparta ball carriers and they were unable to convert on their opportunities at the line. The Lady Warriors went three of ten from the line during the final period.
The Lady Warriors did themselves no favors on defense either. With the lead, they fouled several EA shooters and sent them to the line in the final two minutes of the game which stopped the clock and gave EA a chance to convert.
Down by two points with about 10 seconds to go, EA took a time out. They inbounded the ball and got the ball in the hands of Mack. She found herself on the right side of the three point arch when two different Sparta players, perhaps with fresh memories of the three three-pointers Mack had hit earlier in that fourth period, fouled her with 6.2 seconds to go.
As the noise level in the gymnasium hit a fever pitch, Mack stripped three straight shots to give EA their first lead of the game.
With one last chance to get the championship back, Sparta inbounded the ball and worked their way to the top of the key. But, the EA defense stepped in front of a pass and broke up the play long enough to secure the win.
Mack, who is about a 65 percent free-throw shooter, never showed a sign of pressure as she lined up for the game-winning free throws.
But, Mack wasn't the only hero down the stretch. Every girl that took the court in the final period made an impact.
Leading scorers for EA were Mack with 24 including five three-pointers, Emily Hardy finished with 12 points, Bethany Hawkins chipped in seven and Jessica Gibbs added four and led the team with 11 rebounds.
The area champions' next challenge will be against Lakeside Academy at Faulkner University – Montgomery at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 9 in the first round of the state tournament.