By Les Dixon
HARLAN COUNTY — On the bus trip over to Harlan County High School Wednesday, Whitley County guard Brandi Smith told her teammates if the game between the Lady Colonels and four-time defending 13th Region champion Clay County came down to a last-second shot, she wanted to be the player to take it.
She got her wish.
With the game tied at 54 apiece and a trip to the 13th Region Tournament semifinals on the line, Smith drove the base line and laid the ball in at the buzzer to give Whitley County a 56-54 win over the Lady Tigers, snapping Clay County’s four-year dominance in the 13th Region during the process.
“I like taking the last-second shot,” Smith said. “I told them on the bus, if it comes down to it, I want the shot.”
Smith isn’t a stranger to knocking down a game-winning shot against Clay County. Her three-pointer at the buzzer earlier in the season snapped the Lady Tigers’ 61-game win streak against 13th Region opponents.
“This was huge,” Smith said. “We just want to keep going. We’ve worked hard for this.”
After seeing Clay County fight back from a nine-point deficit in the second half and tie the game up at 54 apiece with 1:05 remaining in regulation, Whitley County coach knew what he wanted to do — run the time off and give Smith a chance to win the game.
“We wanted the ball in Brandi’s hands late. It wasn’t exactly the way we designed it. They did a good job of denying it and she had to come and get it. When it comes down to the end you want your best player to have it,” Anderson said. “She did a good job of taking it to the hole.”
Clay County coach James Burchell said his team tried to deny the ball to Smith during the final seconds, but didn’t do it in the end.
“We just didn’t execute on the last play. We knew who wanted to shoot the ball. I said not to let (Smith) be the one to shoot the ball,” Burchell said. “She was on the right side of the floor. I wanted to push the ball left and try to trap, but we just didn’t do it. We let her have it in the corner and just didn’t do a good job of cutting the baseline off.”
After seeing his team riddled with injuries throughout the season, Anderson admitted it’s quite an accomplishment to see his players regroup and make a run in the region tournament.
“When Jan. 7 started, for the next six weeks we had nobody there. It wasn’t until the first game of the district tournament that we started the same five that we started the season with,” Anderson said.
After falling behind 2-0 to begin the game, Whitley County took control early thanks to the three-point shooting of Mariah Johnson, Taylor Dingess and Smith. The Lady Colonels hit four-of-10 shot attempts from three-point range in the first quarter and built a 17-14 edge.
Smith caught fire in the second quarter and scored 10 of her game-high 24 points to help push Whitley County’s lead to 38-29 at halftime. The Lady Colonels shot 50 percent (nine-of-18) from behind the arc in the first half along with 14-of-24 from the floor.
“Our game is to push the ball. We have to get out and pressure people, we have to push it and we have to shoot in the early offense. We shoot the three a lot and I think everybody knows that,” Anderson said.
Whitley County began to tire some during the third quarter (shot one-of-eight from three-point range and two-of-14 from the floor), which allowed Clay County’s inside attack of Cheyenne Madden and Morgan Chesnut to chip away at the Lady Colonel lead.
Chesnut scored five points during the period while Madden added four, as the Lady Tigers cut their deficit to 45-40 heading into the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s sixth three-pointer of the game with 5:45 left in regulation pushed Whitley County’s lead to 48-43, but Ajaycia Cotton’s second three-pointer of the period ignited an 11-6 run that saw her team tie the game at 54 apiece before Smith sealed the win with her buzzer-beating shot.
Johnson finished the game with 18 points for Whitley County while Madden led Clay County with 17 points.
Whitley County finished the game shooting 20-of-49 from the floor, including an 11-of-30 effort from three-point range while turning the ball over only six times.
The win advances the Lady Colonels to the semifinals of the 13th Region Girls Tournament and they will face Bell County Saturday at noon.
13th Region Girls Tournament at Harlan County High School
Whitley County 56, Clay County 54
Whitley County 17 21 7 11 56
Clay County 14 15 11 14 54
Whitley County (56) — Brandi Smith 24, Maria Johnson 15, Kandace Craig 2, Taylor Dingess 8, Hallie Jones 7.
Clay County (54) — Ajaycia Cotton 11, Talaura Mathis 3, Sara Robinson 4, Cheyenne Madden 17, Morgan Chesnut 14, Kelli Roberts 5, Lesley Roberts 0, Briana Smith 0.