By REID TUCKER
Paxton’s double-overtime 63-59 victory against Malone for the District 1-A championship was one for the ages, marking the ninth-straight district title for the Lady Cats.
The hard-fought contest, played Saturday, Feb. 2, on the court of tourney host Poplar Springs, saw Paxton scrabble for leads at the end of each of the first three quarters, posting scores of 9-5, 23-14 and 35-23, respectively, before Malone exploded in the fourth period to tie the game 47-all. Predictably, the crowd went nuts. By contrast, the players on both sides kept their cool and, through a series of maze-like twists and turns, one squad would take the lead, then the other, and then back again all the way down to the final seconds of the second OT.
Perhaps nobody on the floor showed as much composure as did Paxton sophomore Bethany Neale, who made 10 trips to the free throw line from the fourth quarter on, making 14 of 26 shots in the game. Neale’s clutch performance at the stripe saved the Lady Cats on multiple occasions and could have actually put the game in the books as a 48-47 win for Paxton. However, the officials said she crossed the foul line, negating the go-ahead basket, and with 9.4 seconds remaining on the clock Malone was able to tie the game and sent it into overtime.
Neale was also Paxton’s high scorer on the night, with the 26 points to her credit coming mostly in the two overtimes, when she was either knocking down shots from the perimeter or hitting free throws after repeated fouls against her. Despite what looked to be a calm, collected performance, Neale said the experience was nerve-wracking.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything except trying to make my shots,” Neale said. “But I was praying. I was praying a lot.”
Whatever prayers she said must have covered the whole team, as the Lady Cats shot out the lights, going 70 percent from the floor to Malone’s impressive 47 percent. Tigers leading scorer Curteeona Brellove, who towered over everyone on the Paxton squad, accounted for 21 of her team’s points but, unlike Neale’s contribution, Brellove spread her scoring out over the length of the contest.
Though Paxton was dominant in the first three quarters, the tides began to shift in the fourth, with Malone turned roughly 10-point Paxton leads into matters of a basket or two on two occasions. The first occurred when Malone’s Karrie Shack went 3-for-3 at the foul line to put her team within five points of Paxton’s 39 with 5:29 to go in regulation play. Though Paxton got into the forties thanks to work at the line and the perimeter from Neale and teammate Emily Murray, who finished the game with 17 points, the Tigers were hot on the trail, with a Shalonda Curl 3-pointer making it a 47-45 ballgame with 27 seconds remaining.
Brellove stole the ball on Paxton’s ensuing possession and drove downcourt for a pull-up jumper to tie the game 47-47 15 seconds later. Then Neale got the ball, was fouled, and made the reversed free-throw, sending the game into the first overtime period. Once there, defense dominated the proceedings, with neither team getting off more than six shots on the goal and both making just two apiece. Malone climbed to a 52-49 lead with 1:43 to go, but Neale hit a 3-pointer and got fouled twice in row, making all four shots to give Paxton the 56-53 lead, but Brellove sank a 3 with five seconds left to go to OT2.
Neale hit a three-pointer to start off the final four minutes for a 59-56 Paxton lead, but Brianna Dallas responded in kind to tie the game with 2:36 to go. Paxton’s Quinn Williams scored two points with two minutes left, setting up the Lady Cats to play keep-away down to the 44-second mark, when Neale was fouled for the last time. She made one of two shots with :23 to go, and Quinn Williams got similar treatment with 4 seconds remaining to seal the deal on the Paxton win.
Speaking after the emotional conclusion to the game, Paxton head coach Steve Williams said his team’s ability to come back from the close calls of the final eight minutes of the game speaks to the girls’ desire to achieve well in excess of what is expected.
“It just shows the resiliency of our kids and how much heart they have,” Williams said. “They just never say ‘die.’ I don’t know if it’s that they’re so young that they just don’t know any better when the pressure is like, playing what was really five full quarters at that pace. I’m really proud of our whole team, even those who didn’t get many minutes. Everyone was fully invested in getting this outcome tonight.”
Over in District 2, Holmes County lost by one point in overtime to Chipley, setting up a Tuesday, Feb. 12, regional rematch at Paxton between the Lady Cats and the Blue Devils, who last year upset Paxton to eliminate the Walton County team from further progress in the state playoffs. Paxton beat Holmes County by eight at the Hilton Sandestin Basketball Blowout tournament in December, so Williams was cautious but confident in his team’s abilities.
“Holmes County didn’t go undefeated in their district for no reason,” Williams said. “They’ve got a great team and they’re well-coached and they play at a really frenetic pace. We’ll see where the chips fall.”
Senior Chrissy Currid, always a crucial component on the Lady Cats’ defensive front, remembered the sting of last year’s loss and was decidedly more fired-up than was her coach. She said she spoke for the whole team when she said next week’s game is about getting even.
“This is about revenge,” Currid said. “We’re going to take back what they took from us last year.”