By PATRICK CASEY
The Paxton Bobcats were not to be denied on Friday night as the community showed up in force to watch the Walton County squad earn a 63-42 win over Poplar Springs in the Region 1, Class A final.
Paxton jumped out to a 12-6 lead after a turnover plagued first quarter for both squads as they struggled to settle down and play ball in front of the near capacity crowd.
The Bobcats got a big first half from two of their younger players as freshmen Cortni McKee and Katie Sebastian combined to score 16 of the host squad’s 27 points over the first 16 minutes of the game. Paxton was able to get open looks from the free throw line for several players with Cassidy Brazile and Bethany Neale fighting for offensive rebounds that led to put-back baskets on the interior.
Poplar Springs struggled to find scoring opportunities against the Area 5’s top scoring defense as Paxton clogged the lanes and trapped the Atomics guards near the three-point line to hold the visiting team to 6-of-22 shots from the field in the first half of play.
The tempo picked up in the third quarter but Paxton added to their lead as Neale, the team’s leading scorer, got going by scoring 11 of her 17 points in the third stanza.
Poplar Springs began to make a few shots as Shaneria James connected on a pair of baskets in the quarter but the Atomics could not slow down the Bobcats on their home floor.
Senior Emily Murray took over the fourth period as the talented guard scored 12 of her 16 points over the final eight minutes, mixing perimeter shots with multiple free throw attempts to put the game out of reach midway through the final period.
Junior guard Beth Hall tried to keep the visiting team in the game as she scored 21 points with James adding 10 but the Atomics could not mount enough of an offensive attack to threaten Paxton after the first quarter. The Holmes County squad managed to connect on only 17-of-53 shots for the game compared to a hot Bobcats squad that made 21-of-41 shots from the field. Paxton added 18 points in 29 attempts at the free throw line.
Sebastian finished with 10 points for the Bobcats with McKee adding nine and Brazile six. Both teams had 14 turnovers.
Paxton improved to 24-3 on the year while Poplar Springs ended their run with a 19-9 mark. The Bobcats took three out of four games with the Atomics in 2013-14 and won their 10th consecutive district championship with a 36-34 victory over Poplar on Feb. 1 at Central High School.
“We used a 1-3-1 zone tonight that we don’t usually employ,” coach Steve Williams said after the contest. “We have played them so many times this season that we both knew each other well and what we both liked to do. Katie Sebastian and Cortni McKee were huge for us in the first half and everybody played well. We want to get down to Lakeland and represent the area well after Ponce de Leon and South Walton have gone and come back with state championships over the last two years.”
Paxton will face Chiefland (17-1) in a Class A semi-final at 12:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The Bobcats game will follow the Chipley-Hawthorne match-up that is slated to begin at 11 a.m. Central Time on Wednesday morning. The two winners will play for the state championship on Thursday morning with tip-off set for 11:05 a.m.
Team Notes: Steve Williams is in his fifth season as the Lady Bobcats’ coach and holds a mark of 110-28 at the school. The Paxton girls are 110-13 at home the last 10 seasons. Emily Murray has scored 1,040 points in her varsity career. The Paxton girls basketball team holds a record of 505-128 over the last 22 seasons. Paxton is 35-17 in 22 playoff appearances. Paxton won state championships in girls basketball in 1985-86, 1993-94, 1995-96 and 1996-97 with three of the titles coming in Class A and one in Class B. Tommy Pittman was the head coach of all four state title teams. Paxton is 8-1 all-time at the state tournament Final Four, losing for the first time in their last trip to Lakeland to Lakeland Trinity Christian 44-30 in a 2003 semi-final. Paxton beat St. Petersburg Kewsick 72-49 for the title in 1986 as the squad finished 28-0. The Bobcats(33-5) took out Fort Lauderdale Christian 100-45 in the 1993-94 title game. Arch rival Laurel Hill fell to the Bobcats(26-6) 66-54 in the 1995-96 championship game with the Bobcats(29-2) going back-to-back by knocking off Malone in 1996-97 by a score of 52-44.
By PATRICK CASEY