LEXINGTON — Playing your main rivals in the semifinals of the county tournament in a packed gymnasium can make anybody nervous. Even the No. 1 ranked team in the state.
But once Lauderdale County overcame its early nerves, the Tigers were able to pull away from rival Lexington and post a 65-54 win to advance to the tournament championship game. Lauderdale County will play Mars Hill in the finals at 5 p.m. today.
“I think we went in kind of nervous,” said freshman guard Emma Wallen, who scored 10 points in the victory. “It took us a little while to get warmed up and start playing our game.”
Lauderdale County led just 16-13 with less than three minutes remaining in the second quarter, but closed the half on a 11-2 run to take a 27-15 lead into the locker room.
The Tigers picked up right where they left off at the beginning of the third quarter and continued to pull away from the Golden Bears, leading by as many as 27 points before playing reserves the majority of the fourth quarter, which allowed Lexington to make the final score more respectable.
“We lost our focus with about two minutes left in the second quarter through the start of the third quarter,” Lexington coach Nicholas Cottrell said. “It was a four or five point game with about two minutes left in the half, and we turned the ball over three possessions in a row. We just lost our focus completely, and you can’t do that against a great team like Lauderdale County and expect to stay in the game.”
Lexington was hurt by its lack of outside shooting in the first half. The Bears hoisted up numerous 3-point shots, but failed to hit one until almost midway through the third quarter.
“We’re a push-it team, and if we get an open shot, we shoot it,” Cottrell said. “Sometimes that helps us, and sometimes we can go cold and it can hurt us. Both games we’ve played against Lauderdale County this year we’ve been cold.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers, who aren’t normally known for their outside shooting, caught fire from outside late in the second quarter and early in the third.
Emma and Ivy Wallen both hit 3-pointers and a pair of deep jumpers to expand the lead before halftime, which opened up the inside play for Karlee Brown, who finished with 13 points, Chatara Cox, who scored 11 points and Makayla Liles, who had 10.
“Anytime you’re able to knock down your perimeter shots, it opens up stuff inside for you,” Lauderdale County coach Brant Llewellyn said. “We were able to do that and it was a big reason we were able to pull away from them in the second and third quarters.”
Despite being on the wrong end of the final score, Lexington got an outstanding performance from Savannah Stults, who scored a tournament-high 30 points in the loss.
“Savannah is a little sparkplug for us,” Cottrell said. “She feeds off the big-game atmosphere and emotions. Her leadership on offense is what makes us go.”
Sydney Corum also scored 12 points for Lexington.
No matter how the final against Mars Hill plays out, Emma Wallen said the Tigers have already won their biggest game in the tournament.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always been told ‘Don’t lose to Lexington,’ ” Wallen said. “Even when I was playing travel ball, everyone told me I can’t lose to Lexington. Getting beat by Lexington would almost be worse than losing the state championship.”
Mars Hill 58, Central 48
Mars Hill withstood a late Central rally to beat the Wildcats and earn a berth in the championship game for the second year in a row.
The Panthers (18-5) led by 10 at halftime and took a 42-25 lead into the final period. Central rallied behind Bailey Nelson, who scored 10 points in the period as the Wildcats pulled within six points of the lead.
Mars Hill then put it away at the free-throw line as Ann Marie Mitchell made 7 of 8 and Tatyana Rutherford was 3 of 4.
Madison Jacobs came off the bench to lead Mars Hill with 16 points and Mitchell added 15.
Nelson paced Central with 19 points and Abby Keener scored 15.
Mars Hill will be seeking its first county championship since 1995 when it faces Lauderdale County tonight in a rematch of last year’s title game. The two Class 3A, Area 16 rivals have played three times already this season with the Panthers winning two.