By REID TUCKER and PATRICK CASEY
The Freeport Lady Bulldogs grappled with 18 years’ worth of bitter disappointment going into the 19th year of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Basketball Blowout post-Christmas tournament. Not anymore.
Though no Freeport girls teams had made it to the final game of the tourney prior to 2013, that chain was broken when the Lady Bulldogs (14-2) defeated Tennessee’s William Blount High 70-64 on New Year’s Eve. What’s more, the monumental victory marked the first time that a Walton County team won the tournament, which has historically been dominated by larger schools from out of state.
The Lady Bulldogs got the lead early and held on through tough going in the second quarter to regain a dominant advantage in the third, only to go 0-for-4 in the fourth while Blount riposted to make it 60-all by the final buzzer. Freeport points leader Mary Kate Myrick scored her fair share of 2s and 3s on the night, but it was her six free-throws in overtime that sealed the deal on the win and got her a tournament MVP award. Her father, head coach Mike Myrick, was nearly choked with emotion in the minutes immediately following the conclusion of the game, saying the difference-maker on the night being his players’ determination to play hard for each other.
“We have a saying on the team: ‘hold the rope,’” Myrick said. “That means everybody, from the weakest player up, pulls us through. We all depend on each other and nobody gives up. I was glad we got ahead early and I was thankful for the good outside shooting, and of course Mary Kate came through in overtime, but this was a team win. It felt great.”
Freeport had to win two games to make to the final – Alabama’s White Plains was up first and Ponce de Leon’s Lady Pirates came next. That first game, played Saturday, Dec. 28, was almost the titular “blowout” of the tournament, as the Lady Bulldogs walked through the first half with an overwhelming 43-19 lead before finishing off the Wildcats 72-46. Megan O’Neal scored 32 points in that game and her sister Katie made 14, but Mary Kate Myrick, the eventual girls’ tournament MVP, contributed just eight points toward the total.
Myrick proved her mettle soon enough, banking in a shot as time expired to win 5048 against Ponce de Leon.
It was Katie O’Neal who first came to the rescue in the semi-final game against Ponce, as she made a pair of shots from behind the arc on the Bulldogs’ next two possessions to knot the game at 48-all with 37 seconds left in regulation. A wild series of events saw the Bulldogs get a shot off in the final seconds only to have the ball get trapped between the glass and the rim, forcing a jump ball call with .6 seconds left in the game. The Pirates tried a full-court pass to get off a shot but the ball was ruled not to have been touched, giving Freeport the ball under its goal and setting up an inbounds play to Myrick who promptly won the game on the ensuing possession after a timeout.
Then came the night of Dec. 31, when the Lady Bulldogs the Blount Lady Governors in a game that went from possible-landslide to close call in short order.
Freeport led Blount 24-10 at the end of the first period, as Megan O’Neal unleashed a barrage of five of 3-pointers from seemingly every conceivable distance, at times just a few strides past half court. Things started looking dicey in Q2, as the Blount defense shut down the Lady Bulldogs’ long-range shooting, though both sides’ efforts to get something going on offense were bogged down by numerous turnovers in the first few minutes. The Lady Governors spread out their scoring among six of their number, tacking on another 14 points in the second quarter to Freeport’s nine, to trail Freeport 33-28 at the halftime buzzer.
The home squad came out hard after the break, and after taking just a few minutes to fine-tune their range the Lady Bulldogs once again established a commanding lead. Myrick got her first of a trio of perimeter buckets with around 6:10 to go in the quarter and added the other two in short order to make it a 47-30 ballgame. Freeport and Blount each scored another nine points by the end of the period, with the O’Neal sisters camping at the 3-point line and the stripe, while Blount went 3-for-13 from the floor to give the Lady Bulldogs a 56-39 lead going into the final minutes of regulation play.
As touch-and-go as the second quarter was for Freeoprt the fourth was worse, as the whole team put only four shots on the goal and made none. Meanwhile, the Lady Governors put together an 18-point comeback on the back of a three-3 shooting performance by high-scorer Haley Talcott. Making matters worse, Megan O’Neal caught a tech about the same time that her sister ran into foul trouble of her own, which helped to enable Blount to tie the game 60-all with some stalling tactics at the end of the quarter.
Myrick shone in OT, drawing a foul 15 seconds in and nailing both her shots at the stripe, then added a layup with 2:31 remaining, but Blount’s Amber Click also went 2-for-2 not long after to keep the score close at 64-62. Laura Ham was also fouled in the lane and made another trip to the foul line, where she hadn’t been since the second quarter, easily securing both shots for a 68-64 Freeport lead. Talcott made a long 3-point attempt with 11 seconds to go, but she came up well short of the goal, enabling Myrick to make two more from the free-throw line with three seconds on the clock, sealing the deal on the win.
As for the rest of the local girls’ field, Ponce de Leon finished fourth, unable to capture the third place game on the final day of the tournament. Buckhorn earned the 45-32 win as PDL connected on only 13-of-46 shots from the floor in the contest. Buckhorn led 27-15 at the half and converted 12-of-19 free throws to hold the lead for the final 16 minutes of play.
The Lady Pirates’ Hannah Howell was limited due to foul trouble, though she still led the team with 20 points as only four Pirates players scored. PDL fell to 10-7 overall and will get back into action on Jan. 9 when the squad hosts Poplar Springs in a district game.
Walton’s girls’ squad went two-and-out at the Basketball Blowout, falling first to Kentucky’s Buckhorn High School Lady Wildcats on Dec. 28 and then to Chipley on the 30th. Krista McQueen scored 13 against Buckhorn to lead the Lady Braves, but Walton was unable to get ahead in the final seconds, and, despite double digit scores from Dejah Tucker and Hailey Paulk, the Wildcats took the 51-49 win.
The game against Chipley ended 62-54 in the Tigers’ favor, though Walton trailed 29-26 at halftime. Chipley outscored Walton 14-8 in the third quarter, limiting the Lady Braves to just two baskets from the floor in the period as the Tigers surged ahead, maintaining their lead into the final minutes of the contest. A smattering of 3s from Paulk and Caretha Paul and McQeen’s 10 points weren’t enough to stave off the Tigers’ passing game, and layups scored at will finished off their longtime rivals and put them out of contention for a consolation championship.
By REID TUCKER and PATRICK CASEY