By REID TUCKER
Sidney Beck shot every chance she got, but her only success came when she made two baskets in the first quarter. That is, before she scooped a pass from Bethany Neale, then pulled up with .3 seconds left in the game to sink a better-than-textbook jump shot to win Paxton its 10th-straight district title.
That’s just a taste of the kind of rollercoaster weekend the Lady Cats had.
Paxton (22-3) came by their championship win with a final score of 36-34 against Poplar Springs and got to the championship game by beating Ponce de Leon 36-30. The long layoff between the end of the regular season and school closures last week meant all three teams were rusty and consequently struggled with cold shooting on Friday, Jan. 31 and Saturday, Feb. 1. Paxton shot a combined 28 percent from the floor across both games, while Ponce shot 32 percent and Poplar 28 percent.
However, none of that mattered in the final second of the title matchup between the Lady Cats and the Atomics. Not when Beck made the shot of her career, and the Paxton crowd exploded in a cacophonous burst of triumph drowned out only by the dumbfounded muteness of the Poplar Springs fans. Not when head coach Steve Williams could finally exhale.
“I will never tell a player not to take a shot if they’ve got an open look,” Williams said. “Eventually a situation will come up where they will have to shoot, and if they aren’t used to shooting they might hesitate. I am very glad Sidney did not hesitate and I’m proud for her. It’s a thrill of a lifetime to make a shot like that, even if she had to miss some to get there.”
The whole Paxton squad did some shooting against the Atomics, going 14-for-53 from the floor, and 12-for-29 against the Lady Pirates, who, like the Lady Cats, also had an unbroken nine-season district championship streak on the line.
Paxton had to battle through both games, with the widest scoring margin – a 10-zip Paxton lead – occurring in the first three minutes of the game against Poplar Springs. The rest of the time it was touch and go for everyone involved, with neither side in either game able to establish a clear advantage.
The Atomics rallied from that 10-point deficit to make it a 12-11 lead against Paxton at the end of the first quarter, which they turned into a 23-18 lead by halftime as the Lady Cats’ usual go-to scorers Neale and Emily Murray dropped off after the first. However, it would be an error to describe Poplar Springs’ taking the lead as the result of great field goal shooting as the Atomics made most of their points at the foul line. Kelli McIntosh (12 points on the night) landed four straight free throws to help Poplar, which otherwise relied on junior Deanna Wells’ two layups to keep Paxton at bay.
The Lady Cats scored just seven points in Q3, but it was enough to erase some of the gap, as the Atomics scored only once, a 3-pointer from Wells, in seven attempts. Paxton still trailed by four with less than two minutes to go in the period, and the game got rougher as time wore down. Fortunately, Murray made good a trip to the stripe and Quinn Williams hit a perimeter shot to make it a one-point game with Poplar Springs leading 26-25 going into the fourth quarter.
Neale, who hadn’t scored since the first quarter, came out strong in the fourth and got a free throw plus another six points from the lane, first to make it a 32-all ballgame, then a 34-32 Paxton lead with just 14 seconds left in regulation. McIntosh drew a foul and drilled both FTs to tie it again, this time with less than seven seconds remaining. Neale got the ball and dashed all the way inside, looking was going for a fourth layup, but instead cleanly passed the ball between the legs of her left-side defender, feeding the ball to Beck, who beat the buzzer for the game-winning shot.
Neale had nine points on the night. Williams had eight, while Beck and Cassidy Brazile each had six points.
The previous night’s game, a grinding, defense-intensive contest against Ponce de Leon, (16-12) didn’t end in as spectacular as fashion as the final, with the score knotted at 5-all after the first quarter. Murray scored a brace of 3-pointers and twice got both her shots at the charity stripe to lead the Lady Cats to a 19-15 halftime lead over the Lady Pirates, whose scoring was handled mostly by Hannah Howell. She dominated under the rim throughout the contest to lead Ponce’s scoring with 17 total on the night.
Though both teams continued to endure cold shooting, a 2 and 3 from Howell helped PDL claw its way to within one point of Paxton by the end of the period, as the Bobcats made just 1-of-10 shots from the floor. Just as it would do the next night, Paxton pulled away in the fourth quarter, outscoring Ponce 13-6 thanks largely to triple layups and two free throws from Neale, who led the Lady Cats on the night with 11 points.
PDL wasn’t done yet, as Delilah Bass, who’d been sidelined due to injury since before Christmas, made some timely 2-pointers to tie the game at 28-all halfway through the quarter. Nevertheless, there was no stopping the Lady Cats once Neale finally hit her stride. Howell and Bass each took shots from 3-point range and missed as time expired and Paxton squeaked by with the six-point win.
Coach Williams, though obviously off-put by the games’ difficulties, was glad to keep the district title in Paxton. After all, a win is still a win, he said.
“If anything, these two games showed that our girls are resilient,” Williams said. “Poplar and Ponce de Leon played tremendous ballgames and kept us off-balance the whole time, so my hat’s off to their coaches and their players. I guess the basketball gods smiled down on the Lady Cats this time, but these district tournaments are all about ‘survive and advance’ and that’s what we did.”
Paxton got another big break for its troubles, this time a nine-day layoff before its regional semifinal game on Tuesday, Feb. 11. The Lady Cats will host District 2 runner-up Blountstown.
By REID TUCKER