ROSEMOUNT — Overtime contests are crucial to have early on in the season against excellent competition — because said contests can go a long way toward establishing the experience necessary to pass the same tests in the postseason.
It’s even better, however, when a team can pass that same test early on in the season.
Despite facing a 46-41 deficit with 3:05 left to play in regulation against a very strong Clay Panthers’ girls basketball program, the New Boston Tigers’ girls basketball program — behind three free throws from Mariah Buckley and a game-tying bucket by Peyton Helphinstine with 43 seconds remaining — managed to send the contest to overtime. There, Lexus Oiler took over.
The junior combo player scored four of her game-high 17 points in the overtime session, and willed the Lady Tigers from the beginning of the overtime period to the end as New Boston took the first major salvo in SOC I action with a 56-51 victory over the Lady Panthers on Thursday evening at Clay High School in Rosemount.
For Kayla Wiley, the victory — which put New Boston at 4-0 overall and 3-0 in SOC I play — certainly came under special circumstances considering the excellent environment that was in place throughout the tilt.
“Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a tough game with us both being undefeated in the conference,” Wiley said. “Clay’s a good ballclub and they’re very well-coached. All respect goes to them for a good game and a good atmosphere. It’s always hard to play here, and the fans are very loyal and loud for them. We had good fan support tonight, too, and we’re thankful for all of the support that our fans give us. (Thursday night’s performance) was just a great, solid, overall team win. We struggled a little bit putting shots in the hole, but I’m really proud of the girls. We pulled through at the end and got the win.”
As for Sthefany Thomas, it was another tough loss for a unit that has now dropped back-to-back overtime affairs through its four-game slate so far in 2017-18.
“It’s definitely a tough loss,” Thomas said. “Coming into the game, we were ready to play and we were prepared. I thought that we had control of the game down the stretch in the fourth quarter, but it comes down to just staying composed, focusing on finishing at the rim, and knocking down free throws.”
From the opening tip, Jensen Warnock proved to be on her game in all phases. The junior forward knocked down a three to start the scoring for Clay, then stole a pass and finished down on the left block to kickstart a 7-2 spurt that had Clay out in front early on. Sophia Balestra then added four points of her own during the frame as the Lady Panthers continued to hold the point throughout much of the first quarter behind effective ball movement that slowed the run-and-gun style that New Boston likes to employ.
“I believe that we did,” Thomas said of her team’s ability to control the basketball offensively. “I thought that the girls executed well defensively, and I thought that we were pretty solid the entire game.”
However, like a bolt of lightning, New Boston marched right back into the thick of things. Behind the strong defensive play of Mariah Buckley up top, the Lady Tigers were able to close the first quarter on an 8-3 run before Regan Osborn’s three at the end of the initial frame allowed Clay to take a 15-12 advantage after a quarter of play.
In the second quarter, Oiler began to take control. The 5-10 sophomore forward used her excellent shooting touch to score five consecutive points to start the second quarter of play, including a huge triple that gave New Boston its first lead of the contest at a 17-15 margin.
“Early on, when we weren’t hitting anything, Lexus hit that three to put us back in the swing of things,” Wiley said. “Later on in the game, she was attacking the basket and really doing a good job of ripping the ball and going with it. I’m proud of her and the rest of the girls for keeping their composure.”
Cameron DeLotell, however, had other ideas. With the Lady Panthers now down by a pair, the junior took the ball to the rack to tie the score, then answered an and-one by Kaylee Stone with a three-point bomb from the right wing. Warnock then stole a pass off of a defensive rebound by the Lady Tigers and finished off the play with another bucket from the left block with two seconds remaining to give Clay the lead, 22-20, just before the halftime buzzer sounded.
In the third quarter of action, Warnock — with the help of fellow low-block leader Lauren Campbell — helped the Lady Panthers keep the foot to the floorboard as the pair scored nine of Clay’s 14 points in the quarter to give the Lady Panthers leads of 24-22, 26-24, 28-26, 30-28, 34-33, and 36-35 in a fast-paced third quarter that saw four buckets in the first six offensive possessions between the two ballclubs. Campbell and Warnock ultimately combined to score 19 of the Lady Panthers’ 24 points in the second half — and 12 in a row at one point — en route to finishing with eight-point, 14-rebound, two-assist and 18-point, six-rebound, three-assist, three-block, and two-steal performances, respectively.
“Jensen and Lauren stepped up,” Thomas said. “They made some good plays down the stretch, but it comes down to finishing layups as a team, and just focusing so we can get over that hump and close the deal at the end of tight games. This is good experience for the girls. They’re a young group of girls, so it’s good for them to feel the pain now, and get the sweet victory later.”
But while those two continued to score in droves, so did Oiler. In fact, the sophomore added six points in the third quarter alone to put New Boston up by a 37-36 tally at the end of the third quarter, and got help from her friends in Buckley — who scored eight second-half points — Stone, and Hamilton.
“Mariah really applied great pressure up top, which allowed us to turn our defense into our offense,” Wiley said. “Then, later in the game, we started getting the ball down low to Ali in the stretch, and she was making great moves with the basketball and putting it in, and Kaylee did a heck of a job later in the game of fighting through exhaustion to make one more great defensive play by boxing out Jensen Warnock for a critical rebound. It’s just a great team victory.”
However, after entering the final quarter of play trailing by the 37-36 count, Campbell and Warnock turned it into overdrive. The pair ultimately scored all 10 of Clay’s points in the fourth quarter as the hard-working duo led Clay to a 46-41 lead with 1:45 to play in the fourth quarter.
But when New Boston needed senior leadership, Buckley and Helphinstine willed the Lady Tigers back once again. Buckley, who proved to be a stable presence with the ball out front, knocked down three of her four free throws after being fouled, while Helphinstine knocked down the game-tying score with a tough finish in traffic.
“Peyton was a leader out there,” Wiley said. “She showed great mental toughness. She grabbed boards and took the ball to the rim. The shots weren’t falling for the most part, but Peyton did what I asked her to do, and she was trying to help her team out. You can’t ask for much more out of a player as a coach. I’m really proud of her.”
With a five-point comeback in its back pocket, the Lady Tigers came back, and, behind the presence of Oiler, took control and grabbed a 49-46 advantage with less than 2:45 to play in overtime. Skylar Artis came back with an acrobatic and-one to tie the score, but Oiler came back on the ensuing possession and nailed a one-handed runner in the lane that found its way through the net to give New Boston the lead for good with 2:12 to play. Four free throws from Hamilton and Helphinstine allowed the Lady Tigers to put the game on ice — a stark contrast from past seasons when New Boston let games like this slip through their grasp.
“In the past, we didn’t have the confidence (to finish games). We’d get hit in the throat and we’d kind of step back. Now, we’re the Fighting Tigers,” Wiley said, clapping in between the last two words for emphasis. “We fight for everything that we get. I couldn’t be more proud and honored to be able to coach these girls, because they inspire me, for sure.”
With the victory, New Boston will turn its attention to a Valley squad that is certainly no slouch as Bre Call, Karsyn Conaway, and Hannah Conley will certainly provide a test that will help the Lady Tigers on down the road.
“All we’re doing is taking things one game at a time,” Wiley said. “Had we taken Clay for granted, it definitely would’ve been a different outcome, because Clay is a good team. We’re taking on everything one game at a time and working on improving ourselves day in and day out.”
As for Clay, the youthful Lady Panthers can only grow from such a matchup. They’ll face Western on Monday evening in Latham in what will be looked at as another growth game for Clay (2-2, 2-1 SOC I).
“There’s no other way to replicate this type of late-game situation expect for the late game that we just played,” Thomas said. “Two back-to-back overtime games, including this one, is good for us in order to grow, get better, learn about the things that we need to get better, be composed down the stretch, and just get the win. We’ll get over the hump. This is a good way for us to get better and grow.”