After slugging their way through devastating losses, multiple injuries, changes in roster, and disappointing shortfalls, the Lady Longhorns finally had a shining moment of true victory in the last full home game against the Unaka Lady Rangers. No easy matchup, the game was a head to head race to the finish, but this time Johnson Countys grim determination paid off with a final successful drive in the fourth quarter that provided just enough leeway to outlast the clock.
Im very relieved because we have gotten into those situations before and tried to hold the line and its broke, said Coach Todd Whittemore. The line has broke in the past, but tonight we bent and we didnt break. I thought Kourtney Tolley played very hard. She had 16 points. Brooke Brown had 27 points. But really, I just like the fact that in the fourth quarter tonight we were 9 of 11 from the free throw line. Thats huge for us.
The victory was not only a fitting end to the regular season, but also a great reflection on the career of one of the most important members of the team the past four years, Brooke Brown. Celebrating as the girls sole senior during the special ceremony between the games, Coach Whittemore couldnt say enough good things about Browns impact and the huge legacy she will undoubtedly leave behind.
It was Brooke Browns night, Whittemore said. Shes the last starting senior from when I first came here. This is my first four-year girls player that Ive ever coached and first 1000-point girls scorer that Ive ever coached. She ended up with over 1,300 points. Shes a great example for the younger girls and she has stuck with it no matter all the adversity weve seen this year. Shes not had an easy life off the floor and this season hasnt been an easy life on the floor. Shes just such a great example for all these girls. Im so happy that we were blessed enough for things to go our way. Brooke stepped out 11 for 15 from the line, 27 points, on a night where it was senior night, it was her night, Shes the only senior, so good for her.
Despite the final win, Johnson County could never truly sit easy with the Lady Rangers. From the first quarter, the lead switched back and forth multiple times, first siding with the Lady Longhorns after a couple of baskets from Sophomore Kourtney Tolley and then back to Unaka. At one point the Lady Rangers were leading 7-4, until a huge three pointer from Tolley brought it back in check. Ultimately with Brown and fellow sophomore Kelsey Duperry helping out, the first closed on a 14-14 tie, and rolled quickly into an equally tough second quarter.
Unaka was once again first to seize the momentum, gaining a quick break to climb ahead 22-15. Determined not to let a win slip through their fingers, Johnson County battled back with Brown leading the charge, dropping three consecutive baskets after successfully rebounding missed buckets from the Rangers. Closing out the half trailing 21-26, the lead was still within grasp, but only just barely.
Making things worse, Unaka kicked off the third with a very lucky three-point shot. Tolley and Brown were both working in concert to help offset the Lady Rangers advance, and by midway through the third, Johnson County was back to trailing by five. It was at this point potential disaster struck as Tolley went in for a layup only to receive a hard fall on her wrist, taking her out of the game and requiring a visit to the hospital. Although nothing was broken, the injury did signal a critical point in the game.
Amazingly, instead of causing the team to back pedal, Tolleys injury became a sort of rallying point, causing players like Michala Cretsinger and Mackenzie Bauer to step up their own efforts. Brown ended up shooting Tolleys free throws, and with Bauer immediately following up with a basket the lead was cut to just two at 30-32. Junior Dawn Lewis stepped in to fill Tolleys spot and did a fantastic job with mid-range shot from the corner to tie the game 32-32.
Although Unaka came around to finish up the third in their favor by just one point those few critical plays managed to keep Johnson County in the running at a time where everything could have fallen apart. Talking about the win after the game, even Brown admitted that this was a key point.
I really knew we could win it, Brown said. Everybody was just so happy and so into it to win it for me and that made me feel really good. During the game Coach Whitt didnt say much. He sort of left it up to me to talk to everybody. I told them all I loved them no matter what, and that I wanted them to play hard for themselves and not just for me. They came out and played and Kourtney was doing a great job in the first half, but then she got injured and we all said, well we have to win it for Kourtney now. It really was a good win. We were all really happy and I think were going to do well going into the tournament. I really feel confident about it.
Continuing their renewed sense of purpose, the Lady Longhorns finally broke through a 44-44 tie to take the lead and never looked back. With baskets coming from all over the court and made by variety of players like Bauer, Brown, and Duperry Johnson County was able to keep at least four points to their advantage all the way down to the last play. Unaka never gave up, but the Lady Longhorns were able to answer them basket for basket, and did a fantastic job with foul shots to boot.
By the last few seconds the Lady Rangers were running out of time and making careless errors, sending Brown to the line one final time at the 16 second mark to finish up with a 56-52 victory. Making up for many of the teams recent troubles, Whittemore couldnt be more pleased with the way the game went.
This feels so good right now because those losses feel so bad, Whittemore said. Thats what makes winning so great, you cant buy this feeling. Rich people cant buy what it feels like to struggle and finally win. You can buy a lot of things but you cant buy what we had in this gym tonight and in that locker room after the game. Thats why Im in love with basketball, thats why Im addicted to it.
Final Score: Johnson County 56, Unaka 52
Brooke Brown 27
Kourtney Tolley 16
Kelsey Duperry 8
Mackenzie Bauer 3