By Les Dixon / Sports Editor
CLAY COUNTY — Give Whitley County’s Brandi Smith an inch of separation, she’ll make you pay dearly.
That was the case during Whitley County’s 13th Region showdown against four-time defending region champion Clay County on Monday.
With the game tied at 55 apiece and only seven seconds remaining, the Lady Tigers’ 61-game win streak against 13th Region opponents was in serious jeopardy.
Whitley County’s Maria Johnson rebounded a missed shot and quickly passed the ball to Smith, who had just enough separation from a Clay County defender to release and hit a three-pointer as time expired, giving the Lady Colonels a 58-55 win — Clay County’s first regional loss since dropping a 74-64 decision to South Laurel on March 9, 2008 in the 13th Region Tournament championship game.
Smith said she knew about Clay County’s dominance against regional teams going into the game and she was hoping in the end she would get the final shot to seal the deal for Whitley County.
“I wanted the last shot and I wanted it to come down to that,” Smith smiled. “It felt good when I released it. It’s an awesome feeling knowing we just beat the No. 1 team in the region.”
Smith said she and her teammates began to get the feeling they could pull off the win late in the second half after breaking down Clay County’s defensive pressure on consecutive trips down the floor.
“We knew they were a really good team, but we started picking things up in the end and breaking their press and I thought we felt pretty comfortable,” she said. “Maria got a real good rebound, so I could get a real good look at the end — a lot of it was thanks to her.”
Whitley County coach Larry Anderson hugged the first person he saw (his wife) after Smith’s buzzer-beater dropped the Lady Tigers’ record to 106-3 against 13th Region foes dating back to the 2005-06.
“This was a great win for the girls. It was a great rebound (from Maria Johnson) — no rebound, no shot,” he said. “It was two good teams playing their hearts out in a pressure game. Luckily we came out on top tonight and it helps build confidence for the kids. I knew when it left her hands it was going in.”
Anderson admitted Clay County’s win streak against 13th Region opponents never entered his mind coming into the game.
“This is probably crazy, but it really never entered my mind,” he said about the streak. “This is a good win on the road. These guys here at Clay County are class acts and they do a great job. It’s obvious by how many times they’ve won the region and have been to the state. These people at Clay County are super people and when you do beat them, you know you’ve done something because they run a great program.
“I’m happy for us,” Anderson added. “But their kids will be back. They will use this as a big motivator.”
Anderson said coming into the contest, his team needed to put pressure on Clay County’s guards and keep Cheyenne Madden and Morgan Chesnut from taking things over in the post.
The plan worked, as Madden, who entered the game with a team-best 24-point scoring average was limited to only four points in the first half and 11 points for the game while Clay County turned the ball over 15 times in the loss.
“We knew we had to try to keep them from taking things over down low,” Anderson said. “Our girls really played well out there tonight.”
The game was close throughout with the Lady Tigers leading by as much as eight points (22-14) in the first half, while Whitley County opened the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run to build a 48-40 edge.
But that’s when things got interesting, as Clay County went on a 15-5 run and took a 55-53 lead with :50 remaining after a basket by Madden, but two made free throws by Smith combined with her last-second three-pointer turned out to be enough to give the Lady Colonels the win.
“Our kids did a great job of adjusting tonight,” Anderson said. “The bench did a great job and these kids make up a good team. They are so unselfish.”
Whitley County 58, Clay County 55
Whitley County 11 17 12 18 58
Clay County 14 15 11 15 55
Whitley County (58) — Powers 4, Smith 21, Craig 10, Johnson 11, Dingess 3, Jones 9.
Clay County (55) — Cotton 9, Mathis 6, Chesnut 17, Madden 11, Robinson 10, Smith 2.