LIVINGSTON, Tenn. -- By halftime, the East Hamilton Lady Hurricanes already had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, it seemed.
They trailed by 10 points with two of their three key point-producers saddled with three fouls. But the way coach Derek Morris looked at it, they were only down by 10. Then a funny thing happened.
It was for only five magical minutes, but the Lady Hurricanes came out and played their best stretch of basketball all season to come almost all the way back against host Livingston Academy Saturday night in their Class AA substate game.
In fact, they took a couple of runs at the Lady Wildcats before fouls, fatigue and a late injury to team sparkplug Jessica Caudle all conspired to end the Lady Hurricanes' season with a 72-54 loss.
Caudle's night ended 51 seconds early, when she went down hard with an extremely painful injury to her left elbow. Morris wasn't sure if it were more than just a blow to the funny bone coupled with a frustrating end but Caudle's arm was in a sling as she left the dressing room.
Morris was disappointed that his team, short on tournament experience, came out nervous for the second game in a row, but their recovery time and response to the Livingston press was much quicker than in the region finals. A Lexi Zackery steal as Livingston tried to set up a final shot in the first quarter was converted into a layup, but Zackery missed the bonus shot that would have made it a three-point game after a quarter.
But East Hamilton center Jessica Harp had more fouls than points in the first half and Zackery would soon join her in three-foul limbo on the bench. Only a pair of free throws from seldom used Lauren Petitt allowed East Hamilton to stay within10, 35-25, at the half. Livingston scored only 32 total points in defeating Cannon County in the Region 4-AA title game.
"We made our mistakes early, and 10 points was something we could make up," Morris described his thought process at halftime. "We convinced the girls that they could definitely play with them, and Jessica told me that she needed to find her shot. I agreed with her, so we tried to set up Jessica whenever we could."
With a couple of putbacks from Harp mixed in, Caudle took her game into the teeth of the Livingston defense and was rewarded with 11 third-quarter points. And except for the Lady Wildcats' top scorer, the versatile Marlee Sells, the rest of their offense settled back into firing -- and missing -- a succession of long jump shots. With 4:15 still left in the quarter, a sequence where East Hamilton took four shots in close led to a pair of Caudle free throws that made the game 40-38.
A three-point play by Harp closed the gap to one, 42-41, with 3:25 left in the period, but literally moments later Harp, then Zackery, were hit with their fourth fouls. East Hamilton would not score again in the quarter as Livingston countered the visitors' 16-7 surge with a 9-0 blitz to the end of the period.
But Morris had his first five back in there at the start of the fourth quarter, and they were able to again close the gap to 51-45 as two Zackery free throws and a Caudle power drive opened up the quarter. But with 5:30 to play, Harp was hit with her fifth foul and a technical for slamming the ball, and Livingston's Addy Stover hit 3 of 4 foul shots. Morris earned a T moments later and the wheels came off. This run was 13-0 for the home team and it put the game away.
"It was a sloppy game, but I knew it would be," said Livingston coach Lesley Riddle, who takes her 28-6 team to Murfreesboro next week. "It's the way they play and the way they stayed in the game was to get us playing sloppy, too. They got a lot of offensive rebounds that we normally get because they were quicker down low. We were just fortunate that they didn't do so well from the foul line (12 of 23 to LIvingston's 20 of 34).
"We hoped to get Harp in early foul trouble, so we worked the ball inside," she added. "Marlee's our leading scorer, and I think she was happy to finally play a team that didn't know her so well. They didn't know she shot the 3 and she got some open looks."
Sells led the Lady Wildcats with 23 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Kailey Winningham added 13 for the winners, while Caudle's 19 points were supplemented by 13 from Kaylee Moon.
This marked the third straight year that East Hamilton's season has ended at the substate level, but Morris was emphatic about pointing out the big difference in this year's 24-11 team.
"Two years ago, we had a total team meltdown; it was ugly. Last year, we had all kinds of team drama and everyone just quit," he said bluntly. "Tonight; the players and I are leaving here with our heads held high. We played hard from start to finish and we played as a team."
Asked when preparation begins for next season, Morris managed a smile.
"On the drive home," he said.
East Hamilton 17 8 16 13 -- 54
Livingston Academy 21 14 16 21 -- 72
EAST HAMILTON (54) -- Jessica Caudle 19, Petitt 2, Harp 7, Woods 2, K. Caudle, Zackery 8, Kaylee Moon 13., Wood 3.
LIVINGSTON ACADEMY (72) -- Witt, Robbins, Staggs 8, Meadows 5, Dillon 6, Marlee Sells 23, Lamb, Looper, Kailey WInningham 13, Reeder 7, Stover 5, Dailey 5.
3-point goals: EH 2 (J. Caudle, Moon); LA 6 (DIllon 2, Sells 2, Meadows, Staggs). Records: East Hamilton 24-11; Livingston Academy 28-6.