Lady Jeeps drop heartbreaker

By Kevin Colley

JACKSON — It’s tough to lose any postseason contest.

However, it’s especially heartbreaking when a team loses a postseason bout to a unit that has eliminated it from postseason play six years in a row.

With two free throws by Ellie Jo Johnson, South Webster was able to obtain a 35-33 lead with 12.4 seconds to play in regulation and looked prime to finally be able to beat Waterford in the go-or-go-home stage.

However, the Lady ‘Cats’ Hayley Duff responded by driving from left to right and nailed a game-tying layup with 2.3 seconds left, which set up Rachael Adams’ game-winning basket with 14.2 seconds left in the overtime period as the Lady Jeeps fell by a 41-40 count to Waterford in the Jackson II District Bracket’s Division IV District Final at Jackson High School.

For Kristie Johnson, the loss was certainly hard to take, especially considering that this was the second time in four seasons that a postseason defeat to Waterford was determined over the final 30 seconds of a contest.

“The girls played hard, they battled, they put everything into the contest and once again, it’s us (that leaves with the loss),” Johnson said, trying to hold back the tears. “I just don’t understand it.”

From start to finish, the contest was a battle between two teams whose gritty defensive efforts caused problems for the other.

Through it all, however, South Webster’s version of the big three — Johnson, Madison Cook, and Avery Zempter — were there to head the charge for the Lady Jeeps. They combined to score 15 of South Webster’s first 17 points to allow the Lady Jeeps to overcome a 12-9 first-quarter deficit and take leads of 13-12, 15-14, and 17-16 in the second quarter of play, and despite 11 points combined from the star duo of Waterford’s Megan Ball and Ashley Offenberger, trailed by a scant 19-18 count to the defending Division IV State Champions entering the halftime break.

In the third quarter of play, the Lady ‘Cats responded by going on a 6-0 run to begin the half behind the play of Ball, who recorded a team-high 11 points for Waterford in the contest, to increase the lead to a 25-18 count, Waterford’s largest lead of the game.

South Webster, however, responded with textbook defense, hustle, and the play of Johnson to erase that deficit with two minutes to play in the third quarter, while also erasing any advantages that Waterford had on the boards in the first half with the gritty play that the Lady Jeeps have become known for.

“We knew coming into the contest that rebounding would be huge,” Johnson said. “Waterford is so good at crashing the glass, boxing out, and obtaining those second and third chances. We knew that we had to do a better job at that, and at halftime, we talked about it, and I told them at halftime, ‘If you box out, we’ll win this game.’ We did that, and darn it, they found a way.”

Johnson, who showed off an array of different qualities while bringing the ball up the floor for the Lady Jeeps, scored seven of her game-high 24 points in the third quarter of play. The 6-1 junior’s triple from the left wing allowed South Webster to tie the score at 25 before two consecutive baskets by Waterford’s Hayley Duff put the Lady ‘Cats up by four as the third quarter came to a close.

“Ellie Jo was great tonight,” Johnson said. “We knew that there would be times where she couldn’t drive and that she was going to have to look to shoot. She did a couple of times. She made a three there and had a couple of 10-footers. That’s something that we’ve been really working on all week, because we knew that they would be disciplined and get after it on the defensive end of the floor. She did a good job handling Waterford’s pressure and making smart decisions with the basketball while that pressure was being applied.”

But Johnson needed help.

In the fourth quarter of play, South Webster got that help from Cook, who came up big by scoring seven consecutive points for the Lady Jeeps in the fourth quarter of play. Her game-tying three with less than 45 seconds remaining set up the furious fight to the finish.

“Huge three by Madison there,” Johnson said. “That was a huge three. She did a great job battling off their size and matching that with the excellent effort level that we’ve seen from her all year.”

After Waterford turned the ball over on the ensuing offensive possession and fouled Johnson in the scramble to defend the junior, she calmly stepped up and knocked down two free throws to give the Lady Jeeps a 35-33 lead in the final moments of regulation.

Rachael Adams, however, was able to provide the answer. The sophomore guard took off down the lane, went from left to right, and converted a layup with 2.3 seconds left to send the game into overtime.

Ever determined to give South Webster the victory, Johnson didn’t sulk about the circumstances. The junior scored all five of South Webster’s points in the overtime period — an and-one bucket with 1:15 to play, and another basket with less than 45 seconds left — to move the Lady Jeeps ahead by a 40-39 tally.

Again, however, Waterford managed to find the right ingredients.

With less than 30 seconds remaining, the Lady ‘Cats took their time, and found the answer they needed as Adams’ basket with 14.2 ticks left gave Waterford a 41-40 lead. South Webster had one final chance, but a turnover with 5.1 seconds left in the backcourt extinguished that opportunity.

Despite the loss, the Lady Jeeps’ 15-10 record and Division IV District Final appearance — a year after losing four starters to graduation — is certainly nothing that the South Webster faithful should be ashamed of.

And that’s largely due to the leadership and the unselfishness that Cheyenne Russell and Alicia Watson provided coming off of the bench. Russell worked hard to came back from a stress fracture that forced the guard to miss the first nine games of the season and provided a huge lift for South Webster off of the bench over the last two-thirds of the year, while Watson brought hustle, depth, and a committed attitude to the table for the Lady Jeeps.

“Cheyenne played her heart out and has come such a long way,” Johnson said. “She didn’t play biddy ball; she started late, and when she came back from her stress fracture, she unselfishly accepted a bench role for the betterment of the team. She played a great game for us and did a lot of great things. Alicia didn’t get a lot of playing time, but she was at every practice working her tail off. She takes care of business and made us a better basketball team by helping us prepare for the next game. She’s one of those unsung heroes that doesn’t get a whole lot of press, but deserves it as much as anyone else because she puts the time in. I’m really proud of them both for understanding their roles on the team and for accepting them with a positive attitude.”

By Kevin Colley

Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7

Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7