Fayette County High School girls’ basketball coach John Strickland paced around his players for a couple of seconds prior to entering the huddle during a second quarter timeout. Down 19-5 to Starr’s Mill and on the wrong end of a 11-0 run, the Lady Tigers looked lost and out of sync. Nothing seemed to work as they missed open shots and lacked discipline on the defensive end.
Starr’s Mill was hot and on the way to riding a raucous home crowd’s momentum to another win this season. Strickland knew that his team just needed to a wakeup call.
Once in the huddle, he encouraged his team to defend without fouling and pressure shooters on the perimeter. He also told his team to speed up the tempo and get easy transition shots.
The most important thing Strickland told his team was to keep fighting for each other.
“We fought back and I kept telling them to just weather the storm,” Strickland said. “I told them this is at their home court and if we got within 10 points, we would have a chance.”
After the timeout, the Tigers responded with tenacious defense and climbed out of the 14-point hole to take a 57-50 victory over the Panthers in overtime.
Led by senior point guard Maegan Barkley, the Tigers started to find their rhythm. Barkley was able to break down the Panther defense with timely passes to her teammates. She had 8 points in the first half and had a little help on the defensive end from sophomore center Naomi Franco. Franco grabbed several key rebounds and had two dynamic blocks. She finished the game with 7 points, but her activity level gave the Tigers momentum. At halftime, the Tigers whittled the deficit to 20-14 and had new life.
In the third quarter, Fayette continued to focus their energy on the defensive end. They only allowed Starr’s Mill to score four points in the period and frustrated junior point guard Alyssa Angelo.
Angelo struggled in the game and finished with 2 points on the night. Her backcourt mate, sophomore Alice Anne Hudson, also missed a significant portion of the game after accidentally getting hit in the head with an elbow. Hudson would return later in the game.
“We tried to push up in the middle a little bit as we were waiting back underneath the basket,” Strickland said. “They kept going inside, so I told them to step up and shut it down. We played good defense after halftime and offensively we picked it up.”
With her top scorers struggling, Starr’s Mill head coach Emily Sweeney had to go to sophomore guard Ashtyn Lally for the bulk of the offense. Lally responded with 20 points and hit five 3-pointers in the game. She was the offense for Starr’s Mill, who found themselves down 26-24 after the third quarter.
The Panthers made up for it in the fourth quarter as they scored 20 points to take a 44-41 lead late.
Starr’s Mill got timely shots from role players like freshman center Ali Rumpel and junior forward Makenna Tschetter. Both were huge on the glass as they forced the Tigers to make an adjustment once again.
This time, Strickland went unconventional and put in a five-guard lineup with 30 seconds left to force a turnover. Strickland turned to freshman guard Ghylissa Knowles in the game’s waning moments.
“We were in foul trouble and I wanted to try to play really fast,” Strickland said. “I knew the they were going to beat us inside, but I wanted to put a little more pressure on them.”
What ensued next was pure pandemonium as the Tigers gathered a defensive rebound and found Knowles open in the corner for the game-tying 3-pointer. She knocked it down and sent the game to overtime at 44-44.
It was perhaps the biggest shot of her young career as the large contingent of the Tigers faithful erupted.
“It was a huge shot,” Strickland said.
In overtime, Fayette took control and rode a 13-6 outburst to their 11th victory of the season. They stayed undefeated in region play, but admitted they were put on notice by the up-and-coming Starr’s Mill Panthers.
“They were undefeated in the region and this is what I expected as they are a good team,” Strickland said. “Nobody had beaten them in the region and no one had beaten us. I thought tonight was a good win.”
Starr’s Mill fell to 11-5 on the season. Sweeney felt the game was a great test and showed the region that the Panthers can play with anyone.
“I am very proud of them and I told them to not hang their heads,” Sweeney said. “They did exactly what I asked them to do and you’ve got to be proud of their performance.”
Starr’s Mill will look for revenge on January 26 as the Panthers travel to Fayette County for the rematch. That game could also have region implications as both teams sit at the top of the standings.
“They are a good team and now we know we can play with them,” Sweeney said.
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