Of all the elements that helped the Arts & Sciences girls' basketball team earn a spot in Wednesday's Region 3-A championship game, preparation might have been the biggest key.
At least after coach Zach Dragoo combined it with motivation.
Days before Monday's 37-31 semifinal victory over Whitwell, Dragoo gave his team a several-page scouting report on the Lady Tigers, then issued a challenge.
"The challenge I gave them yesterday at practice was that I was going to ask them questions from it, and if they didn't know the answer, we would run," Dragoo said. "And they knew all the answers. They warmed up with those scouting reports in their hands. I think they're starting to see what kind of preparation it takes to be successful at this point in the season. They were really focused tonight."
That focus paid off by guaranteeing the District 5-A champion Lady Patriots at least two more games this season. They will face Van Buren County, the District 6 champion who defeated Silverdale Baptist in a 55-53 overtime thriller in Monday's other girls semifinal, for the region title Wednesday at 6 p.m.
In Monday's opening quarter, however, the tendency to start slowly that has plagued the Lady Patriots throughout the season reared its head again. Whitwell led 12-3 at the end of the period, but CSAS (17-13) turned up its defensive pressure and turned the tables in holding the Lady Tigers scoreless in the second quarter for a 13-12 halftime lead.
"I asked them, have we been in this position before?" Dragoo said. "We started out slow again, but I told them if we just kept playing, we could wear them out eventually. With the pressure that we put on them, they started to make mistakes, and we got some easy baskets."
The Lady Patriots held a 28-18 lead with under two minutes to play in the third quarter, but Whitwell fought its way back. A 3-pointer from Kelsey Kilgore got the Lady Tigers within four less than a minute into the fourth, and a three-point play from Kammy Smith trimmed the CSAS lead to 33-30 with 2:11 remaining.
That score held until Keturah Billen made a free throw for the Lady Patriots at the 1:37 mark, but seconds later Whitwell returned the margin to three with a foul shot of its own. Senior Brooke Mitchell's free throw gave CSAS a four-point cushion, and after two foul line misses from the Lady Tigers, freshman Sheridan Randoph's late basket sealed the 37-31 victory.
"When it got close, you saw those older, more experienced players really step up," Dragoo said. "They did a very good job of encouraging these young girls. Even when it got close, they believed we would pull it out, and that's the sign of a good team. They've put a lot of work into this, some of them more than they ever have before. To see it pay off for them is exciting, especially when we're so extremely young."
The second semifinal ended in heartbreak for Silverdale, which trailed Van Buren County by several possessions throughout most of the first three quarters before mounting a furious comeback in the fourth. The Lady Seahawks began the period trailing 38-30, but Sloane Woodard’s 3-pointer cut it to 40-38 with 5:17 left to play, and her feed to Megan Lewis with 2:09 remaining gave Silverdale a 48-46 lead.
The Lady Seahawks had several opportunities to extend the lead, but Allison McCoy’s jumper with 24.7 seconds on the clock tied it for Van Buren and sent the game to overtime. In the extra period, the Lady Eagles built an early lead, but Emily Skelton scored at the 1:15 mark to get within 54-53.
A Silverdale 3-point attempt rimmed out with less than 40 seconds to play, and Shelene Hitchcock connected from the foul line to extend Van Buren’s margin to two points with 7.5 seconds on the clock.The Lady Seahawks had a chance to tie or go ahead in the final seconds, but Woodard’s 3-pointer was blocked and the Lady Eagles secured the ball for the victory.
Lakelyn Bouldin scored a game-high 28 points for Van Buren County, while Woodard led Silverdale with 16 and Lewis followed with 15. Skelton finished with 10 for the Lady Seahawks, while Brooke Mitchell and Sarah McElvain led CSAS with 10 apiece. Tankia Gholston was Whitwell’s scoring leader with 12 points.
The tournament continues Tuesday night with the boys’ semifinals. CSAS will face Sale Creek at 6 p.m., followed by Boyd-Buchanan vs. Copper Basin.
(E-mail Jaime Barrett at email@example.com)
Region 3-A Girls' Semifinals
ARTS & SCIENCES 37, WHITWELL 31
Whitwell 12 0 10 9 -- 31
CSAS 3 10 15 9 -- 37
Whitwell (31) -- Muir, Tanika Gholston 12, Smith 5, Andregg, Rogers, Coppinger, Kilgore 9, Hedrick 2.
-- Little 3, Billen 7, Sarah McElvain 10, Brooke Mitchell 10, Walker 5, Randolph 2, Montgomery, Ealey.
3-point goals: Whitwell 4 (Kilgore 3, Gholston); CSAS none.
VAN BUREN COUNTY 55, SILVERDALE BAPTIST 53 (OT)
Silverdale 13 7 7 21 5 -- 53
Van Buren 18 8 9 13 7 -- 55
Silverdale (53) -- Megan Lewis 15, White 3, Harkleroad 6, Sloane Woodard 16, Smith, Emily Skelton 10, Sims 3, Sanders.
Van Buren (55) -- S. Christian 9, Lakelyn Bouldin 28, Cole 6, McCoy 4, Hitchcock 6, Dodson, H. Christian 2.
3-point goals: Silverdale 8 (Woodard 4, Lewis 3, White); Van Buren 5 (Bouldin 2, Cole 2, Hitchcock).
Sale Creek vs Arts & Sciences, 6 p.m.
Boyd-Buchanan vs Copper Basin, 7:30 p.m.