By PATRICK CASEY
Saturday night was a good night to be a girls basketball player or fan of three of our Area 5 teams.
The Walton Braves, Paxton Bobcats and Ponce de Leon Pirates all won their match-ups in the district championship games of their respective districts to earn the right to host first round state playoff games on Thursday night.
The Walton Braves had the closest call amongst the three local teams. It took a banked-in jumper from sophomore point guard Tori Lincoln from the left side of the lane as time expired for the Braves to pull out a 52-50 win over arch-enemy Pensacola Catholic.
The ending wasn’t as climactic in Vernon as Ponce de Leon used a 22-11 run in the third quarter to build a 45-21 lead over the Baker Gators. PDL won the contest 53-34 for their third victory over the Gators this season while claiming their fifth consecutive district title.
The Paxton Bobcats also had five as the magic number and defeated Rocky Bayou at Central High 60-37 for their fifth consecutive district championship in Class A.
Walton’s win proved the most problematic as the Braves faced down a Crusader squad that had won 25 in a row against Walton until the Braves beat them in DeFuniak Springs in early December. The Crusaders reached the championship game after Fallon Hartig stole an inbounds pass from South Walton in the final seven seconds and raced down the floor for the game winning bucket in a 37-35 win on Friday night that ended the Seahawks’ season with a thud.
Against Walton, the Braves took an 11-4 lead after one quarter of play as Walton forced several turnovers early to build a lead. That evaporated in the second quarter as Walton went cold from the floor and committed several turnovers of their own as Pensacola Catholic rallied for a 24-18 halftime advantage.
Walton came out with the adrenaline pumping in the third quarter and the Braves quickly converted several early possessions to take the lead. They held a 20-11 scoring advantage in the quarter to recapture the lead after 24 minutes of play at 38-35.
Walton held the advantage most of the fourth quarter, but the Braves hit a dry spell from the floor as Catholic’s Sunny Harris hit some key perimeter baskets to help the Crusaders claw back into the contest. The Crusaders took the lead with 90 seconds to play at 50-49 only to have Walton convert a free throw with less than a minute to play to tie the game at 50-50. Catholic missed a shot on the next possession and Walton grabbed the rebound with 30 seconds left and a chance to win the game. The Braves nearly gave up that chance and had to burn several timeouts to hold onto the ball as they took the clock down. The Crusaders stole the ball with less than 15 seconds left in the game, but turned it right back over on a backcourt violation.
Walton got the ball in to Tori Lincoln with seven seconds left and she raced into the lane to hit the fateful shot that made Walton a district champion in girls basketball for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
Tori Lincoln scored all 14 of her points in the second half while Betsy Stevenson put up 14 points with Jasmine Moore scoring 12 on the night.
“We had to win this game,” Lincoln said after the celebration quieted down. “Coach McClure told me to take it to the basket and I was able to get a good angle on the final shot. We wanted it so bad! We had to win this game.”
Senior Lee Paulk was held to three points after battling the flu on Friday night. “I had to play tonight. It wasn’t easy. But we did enough to win. Coach works us hard and it paid off tonight. This team can do a lot of different things.”
Betsy Stevenson was overjoyed with the win. “We’ve played a lot better lately, won a lot of close games. They are our rivals and we had to get past them to win the district title. The last few months have been great for me to be a senior at Walton.”
Walton (18-7) will host Chipley (15-9) on Thursday night at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the state playoffs in Class 3A. The Tigers gave Walton two of their seven losses this season, but got shellacked in Marianna by the Bulldogs in the District 2 title game Saturday 58-26.
“They’ll be tough,” Walton girls basketball coach Terry McClure said after the Catholic win. “They are athletic. They beat us last year at the buzzer. They beat us twice this year. This is where the real season begins. We took the first step, but we have a lot more to accomplish to reach our goals.”
Paxton (19-6) used a familiar philosophy to take out Rocky Bayou. The Bobcats played shut-down defense and pounded the ball into junior center Erin Walker to win games. Walker put up 22 points in the district clincher while teammates Stevie Davidson added 14 and Krysten Cuchens had 10. Paxton turned the game into a rout with a 23-8 advantage in the third quarter that saw Paxton hold a 53-31 lead entering the final quarter of play that led to the final margin of 60-37.
The Bobcats, like PDL, won all three meetings with Rocky Bayou and will open the Class A playoffs on Thursday night at 7 p.m. when they host Bethlehem (18-8). The Wildcats knocked off Paxton in November in Bethlehem, but now have to travel to Paxton to take on a group that is unlikely to lose at home.
Paxton reached the district title game after squashing Laurel Hill 61-23 in the semi-final on Friday night. Walker led the way with 16 points while Emmalee Infinger scored 11 and Stevie Davidson had 10.
Ponce de Leon, now near full strength for the first time perhaps all year, defeated Jay 58-43 in the district semi-final in Vernon on Friday night to advance to the meeting with Baker on Saturday. The Pirates got 16 points from a healed Hillary Harper while the ever consistent Gypsy Griffin provided 15 points in ending Jay’s season. The Royals had given the Pirates a pair of tough games in the regular season and were within 41-36 to start the fourth quarter before the top seed pulled away with a 17-7 final quarter of play.
Against Baker, who struggled to put the ball through the hoop in three meetings with the Pirates this season, PDL took a 23-10 lead to the locker room and never looked back on the way to the 53-34 victory. The Pirates got 13 points from Griffin and 11 from Hillary Harper. They hit 20-of-30 free throws to earn a home game with Blountstown on Thursday in a first round Class 2A playoff game at 7 p.m.
Tourney notes: The second round of the playoffs will be held on Tuesday, February 17, which falls after the Herald’s deadline for that week and the Saturday night region finals that would be on Saturday, February 21.
The Walton girls are 16-14 in 14 state playoff appearances. The Braves lost in Chipley last year on a shot by forward Sherina Gonzalez at the buzzer 58-56 after having never lost a buzzer-beater in their playoff history. Walton has made several winning shots to end games this year and may have to do so to get by Chipley on Thursday, but the Tigers 32-point loss in Marianna raises several questions about the team. Walton will have revenge on their mind and could host a second round playoff game on Tuesday if Pensacola Catholic defeats Marianna in their game in Marianna. For Walton, it would be a pick-your-poison situation. If Marianna wins, it would force Walton to travel and play a team that the Braves have already beaten twice, while a Catholic win would allow the Braves to stay at home, but do you really want Catholic to get another shot against Walton with the last two games being decided by two points. Of course, if Walton loses to Chipley – and keep in mind they haven’t won a playoff game since claiming the 1996 state semi-final against Wildwood – the question is moot.
PDL seems to have the most favorable match-up on Thursday. The Pirates clubbed Blountstown in PDL last season in the opening round 65-36 and should have no reason to fear a Tiger squad that hasn’t had much experience in the playoffs. The gloves will come off in the second round when PDL will likely have to travel to Cottondale on Tuesday. The Hornets should defeat Baker and pack the home fans in early for the Pirates visit as this game should be standing-room-only. The Pirates are young and seemingly healthy, so this game, if it happens, is not to miss.
Paxton faces a Bethlehem squad on Thursday that beat the Bobcats 61-58 in mid-November. I wouldn’t want to be the team that had to come to Paxton for a rematch, so the Wildcats had better bring their A-game in the opening round. District 2 was stronger than Paxton’s district this year, so the Bobcats are likely in for a fight, with Graceville almost assuredly getting a chance to host the winner of this contest on Tuesday after they dispatch Rocky Bayou. A win over Bethlehem gives Paxton six consecutive 20 win seasons for the program, and the Bobcats are 66-5 the last six years at home. The Bobcats should win at home, but that trip to Graceville (23-2) may not be a pleasant experience on Tuesday.