By REID TUCKER
Talk is cheap. Being there in-person when two evenly matched teams battle hard through four quarters of near-faultless basketball is priceless.
That was especially true on the night of Nov. 26, when the Paxton Lady Cats narrowly pulled out a 47-46 victory at Freeport in a game that went down to the last possession and indeed the last second of play. However, the game between the then-unbeaten girls’ teams of Paxton and Freeport was more about the direction the season is heading for the respective squads than what they’ve done so far. Paxton head coach Steve Williams summed up the game best.
“This early in the year, records are irrelevant,” he said. “Just knowing the record doesn’t tell you anything about where your team is. Playing hard games like this one against good opponents is what lets you know how your team is shaping up. It was truly everything you want in a great high school game.”
The Lady Bulldogs had a slight edge through each quarter, even carrying a 36-33 lead going into the final period. In the fourth quarter Paxton gained the initiative only for Freeport to snatch it back again, the sides swapping one- or two-point leads like prizefighters swap jabs and counterpunches. Then Paxton left Freeport reeling with the hoops equivalent of a blow to the liver.
Freeport was up 43-42 when Paxton’s Bethany Neale made a fake for the lane with 58 seconds left in regulation, then pulled back behind the arch and drained a 3-pointer to put the Lady Cats ahead by two. The Lady Bulldogs staggered and Paxton’s Sidney Beck picked up a trip to the stripe, earning her only two points of the game in free throws for a 47-43 lead with only 21 seconds to go in the game. Freeport made one last volcanic effort, as Mary Kate Myrick came out with the ball after a scramble and drilled a shot from the perimeter with six seconds remaining to put her team in a position to win with another basket.
Paxton’s Emily Murray was intentionally fouled around half-court to kill the clock with :4 showing, and she missed her shot at the foul line. The Lady Bulldogs, whose fast break offense had been partially foiled by the Paxton defense all night, exploded out of the gates and Katie O’Neal drove the ball to the lane. She put up the last fateful shot of the game just as the buzzer sounded but it came up short of the basket to give the visiting Lady Cats the win.
Freeport head coach Mike Myrick was pleased with his players’ effort, if not exactly thrilled with the output. Megan O’Neal led the team with 19 points (earned mostly when she scored a trio of 3-pointers in the first quarter) and the other two high-scorers, Mary Kate Myrick and Katie O’Neal, scored 13 and 12 points, respectively. Though the team made 12-of-18 at the free-throw line, he said everyone was a little bit off when shooting from the floor.
“Paxton got a little more out of its secondary players,” Coach Myrick said. “We’re still trying to through everything as far as the team dynamic with our new players on board. It’s a work in progress right now. We’ve averaged 60 points per game up to this point, so it’s clear that we had some open looks and missed the shots we usually make.”
As for the Lady Cats, nearly every player turned in a noteworthy performance, especially Neale, who led the team with 15 points despite have to sit out the whole second quarter due to foul trouble early. Quinn Williams got a critical 3-pointer to tie the game in the second quarter and Cortni McKee scored 10 points in the first half alone. Emily Murray never came off the floor in 32 minutes of regulation play, scoring 11 total points, while Lenora Dixon and Cassidy Brazile lived on the boards, pulling down rebounds all night.
“I feel like we’re getting better in practice and in games, but we’re still feeling everything out,” Williams said. “We’ve only got a few players with varsity experience, so we’re definitely a young team with a lot of improving still to do.”
By REID TUCKER