By Chris McCarthy/Editor
If the lowest-seeded team in the field is not expected to make much of a showing at a basketball tournament, no one bothered to inform the Southside High girls.
Perhaps it was a case of a youthful team lacking enough experience to have case of the nerves, but the sixth-seeded Lady Panthers earned a berth in the Etowah County Tournament championship game with a 59-52 win over No. 2 seed Glencoe on Thursday at Gadsden State.
Southside takes on top-seeded Hokes Bluff tonight (Jan. 17) in the title contest.
Although the Lady Panthers (8-9) led wire to wire, the outcome was very much in doubt until the final minutes.
The Lady Yellow Jackets (11-8) shaved Southside’s 11-point halftime lead to one midway through the third quarter, and Sally Tinker’s two free throws with 3:08 left in the game drew Glencoe within 50-47.
By that time, however, the Lady Panthers were in the double-bonus situation, and Southside’s final nine points came via the charity stripe. The Lady Panthers converted 9-of-12 free throws after Tinker scored those two points.
Meanwhile, the Lady Jackets were forced to foul with just over a minute remaining and could not get back within five points.
Southside’s success at the free throw line was a major factor, as the Lady Panthers shot 85 percent (18-for-21) for the game. Glencoe shot 75 percent (9-for-12).
“In a close game, free throws can win a game for you, and [free throws] certainly were big for is tonight,” said SHS head coach Kim Nails. “That’s about the kids just being disciplined and putting the ball in the hole when we needed to.”
Lindsey Hindsman led Southside with 18 points, followed by Hunter Ashcraft with 12, Baylee Gilchrist with eight and Mallary Smith with seven.
Blakely Alfred pulled down 11 rebounds, while Ashcraft handed out five assists.
“We’ve played all year kind of like a roller-coaster, up and quarter and down a quarter,” said Nails. “But we managed to play with more consistency tonight. Glencoe’s a good team, and they beat us earlier in the year. We knew that they would come out in the second half and make a good run. But we were able to managed that and get back the lead.”
Tinker paced Glencoe with 19 points, followed by Kayleigh Billingsley with 11 and Jenson Napper with nine.
“It seemed that every time we were thinking of getting a run, [Southside] just knocked down another 3 [point basket],” said Glencoe head coach Yvette Sparks. “They were really stroking it tonight, and they shot remarkably well. We missed some assignments, and when we weren’t covering the baseline appropriately, we put them on the free throw line. We always felt throughout the game that any minute we were going to turn the corner, but [Southside] just kept after it.”
Sparks acknowledged that Jessica Rathje’s foul trouble hurt the Lady Yellow Jackets’ cause. The junior center’s limited game time resulted in six points.
“It was hard to keep Jessie on the bench, because she’s a tremendous force to deal with and we play much better with her on the court. I usually give her the other team’s biggest post players and let her defend them. The one time when I put her in [with four fouls], she picked up another foul within seconds.”
Five points each from Hindsman and Ashcraft helped Southside take a 15-10 advantage after one quarter.
Respective 3-point baskets by Hindsman and Cassie Davis along with a Davis layup stretched the Lady Panther lead to double digits in second the second period.
Glencoe answered with a 7-2 spurt, but two baskets from Smith in the final minute of the first half sent Southside into the locker room leading 29-18.
The Lady Yellow Jackets quickly trimmed that lead during the early minutes of the third quarter. Tinker’s 3-pointer at 7:47 ignited a 12-2 run that pulled Glencoe within 31-30 at 4:25.
“We were making negative adjustments in the first half that weren’t according to our game plan, and we made specific adjustments to our rotational defense [at halftime],” said Sparks. “I was very proud of how we executed so well coming into the second half.”
Nine points from Gilchrist during the period helped the Lady Panthers maintain the lead, however, and Ashcraft’s pair of free throws with eight seconds left pushed the Southside advantage to 43-36 entering the final eight minutes.
Morgan Harris’ trey and a jump shot from Hindsman early in the fourth quarter restored the Lady Panthers’ double-digit lead, but Glencoe responded with a 9-2 spurt that ended with Tinker’s free throws with just over three minutes left.
According to Nails, Southside has never won a girls county championship.
“Hokes Bluff’s a very good team, but we’re excited for the challenge,” she said. “I’ve coached for 25 years, and this is the best 10 group of girls that I’ve ever coached. They’ve pulled together and united, and win or lose, they’re champions in my book.”