By REID TUCKER
Not a single seat was filled in the Paxton School auditorium, where the Lady Cats’ Class 1A state championship game against Chipley was live-streamed via the Internet.
That’s because everyone in the place was on their feet on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 20, when Paxton’s Emily Murray lifted her team out of a two-point deficit, then sealed the deal on a thrilling 39-34 victory over Chipley in the Class 1A state championship.
It was a series of events she’ll never forget. The senior guard bagged a clutch-of-all-clutches 3-pointer to put Paxton ahead 35-34 and then successfully drew a pair of fouls and knocked down four free-throws to give the Paxton girls’ program its first state championship since 1997 and the fifth in school history. Murray, and indeed many on her team and in the Paxton crowd that traveled to Lakeland, wept for joy in the minutes after the game and she was still ecstatic even days later.
“I had to check the scoreboard again to make sure it had really happened,” Murray said of the moments following her 3-point shot. “I knew I would never be in this position again. This was going to be the end of my basketball career one way or another. We had way under a minute to go, we were down, somebody had to do something, and it had to be quick. I thought ‘everyone gets their due,’ and we were due, so I took the shot with a lot of faith and hope.”
Paxton had indeed paid its dues. The team finished the last two seasons with solid district showings and more than 20 overall wins, but nevertheless failed to make it out of regional play in 2012 and ‘13. The stage at this year’s tournament was set for a truly monumental confrontation, as Paxton, hungry to avenge the bitter disappointments of the past, came up against last year’s runners-up, the Lady Tigers of Chipley, who were positively famished after South Walton trounced them to win in 2013.
The roars of the home crowd watching the game over the Web drowned out any doubts with chants of “we believe.” The game itself was one for the history books, with the lead swapping hands almost as much as the ball did, as the Lady Cats and Tigers clawed for each possession. However, Paxton’s critical advantage in the game was not in scoring until Murray’s seven-point run at the end, but rather in ball security – the Tigers had 24 turnovers to Paxton’s 18, and those six made the difference.
The game was knotted 11-all after the first quarter, but Chipley pulled narrowly ahead in the second and went into the locker room with the scoreboard showing 21-18 in the Tigers’ favor. Emerging from the halftime break, the Lady Cats’ Cassidy Brazile, Bethany Neale and Lenora Dixon surged forward, leading Paxton to a 12-4 scoring advantage over Chipley for a 30-25 going into the final eight minutes of regulation. Meanwhile, Chipley’s bigger, taller players started to visibly tire, and turnovers continued to kill any momentum the Tigers hoped to regain.
Things got dicey for Paxton again in Q4, as the score was once again deadlocked at 32-all with 3:34 left to play, and Chipley’s best player, Amanda Paschal put them in position to win with a 32-miuntes, 16-point, 10-rebound performance. However, other than a smattering of points from her team mates, Paschal had to do almost all the heavy lifting, even on both ends of the floor. When Murray drilled her miracle 3-pointer at the 38-second mark and then stole the ball from Chipley’s Brittany Lee to get her successive trips to the stripe that was all she wrote.
Murray scored 20 points in the final and 13 in Paxton’s 53-41 semi-final win against Chipley, and she led the team with 15 steals at the tournament, good enough to win the 1A MVP award. Neale scored 16 points over the two games and had 14 total rebounds, while Brazile and freshman Katie Sebastian scored 12 and 17 points, respectively, over the same period. Paxton was 29 percent from the floor to Chipley’s 38 percent, but the Tigers preferred to pound the ball in the lane, which set up the Lady Cats’ steals and rebounding advantage.
Paxton head coach Steve Williams heaped praise on his whole team, citing their resilience and determination all season long, but particularly in the final games of the year. Williams said his girls played their hearts out for their hometown fans that came to support them in person and those who were there in spirit, and for that he and the team will be forever grateful.
“It feels outstanding to be the state champs, but I can’t stress enough that we did this as a team and as a community,” he said. “On behalf of all the Lady Cats, I want to say we appreciate everything. We could feel the energy all the way down to Lakeland. We never could have done this without everyone’s love and support. This community here has embraced the team in a way that is wonderful to experience.”
Murray agreed. She and the rest of the team were greeted like heroes when they disembarked from the bus to an exultant student body and a cheering mob of fans from all around the area on Friday. For Murray, who moved to Paxton from Sarasota and played on the Lady Cats varsity squad for the last six years, the win in Lakeland was significant on several levels – not least of which was emblazoning the 2013-2014 Lady Cats’ place in Paxton’s storied history.
“I’m so proud to have been a part of this team,” she said. “Winning the championship is bittersweet because, while I’m happy we won it, especially in my senior year, I’m sad that it’s over now. It’s been a greater blessing than I could have imagined, leaving my personal mark on the school that has left such a mark on me.”
By REID TUCKER