It’s deja’ vu for Western Tech’s Daija Coles and Deja Dennis and a few of their teammates and head coach Nolan Roe, after the Wolverines (19-6) won their second straight Class 1A North Region championship with a 46-42 victory over host New Town (19-7).
The defending state finalists will play Friday, March 8 at 7 p.m. at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County against the winner of Southern, Garrett and North Carroll.
With 6:33 remaining in the fourth quarter of the regional title game, the score was tied 33-33, and the Wolverines had three starters on the bench.
But, the two remaining Wolverine starters, Daija Coles and Autumn Tapley, and some clutch reserve performances from Christina Spliedt, Ashley Gourdine and Bria Johnson helped them take the lead and outscore the Titans, 13-9, the rest of the way en route to victory.
The reserves were thrust into action because junior Ebonee Dixon (6 points) fouled out late in the third quarter and junior point guard Sydney Clopton (12 points) and Deja Dennis (13 points) had to leave the game after they collided heads and came off the floor woozy with 6:33 left.
Their heads cleared quickly when they saw Tapley feed freshman Gourdine for her only two points, giving the Wolverines a 35-33 lead with 6:15 left.
Clopton returned with a bruised forehead and launched an errant three-pointer, but Coles (11 points, 12 rebounds) deposited the offensive rebound for a three-point play and 38-33 lead.
Coles knew the Wolverines could overcome adversity, but the situation was daunting.
“I just know we had three starters in foul trouble and we had two starters that were near death,” she said. “I knew we just had to remain calm because if we got hyped, the game was gone out of our hands. We had to stay calm, play defense and not commit turnovers. We just had to do what we always do.”
New Town’s Candis Taylor (5 points) sunk a three-pointer and Tiana Davis (9 points) hit a layup to tie the game at 38-38, before the wounded Dennis took over the game.
She followed a Clopton free throw with a pair of clutch baskets that pushed the Wolverines lead to 43-38 lead with 2:04 remaining.
“Timely buckets, they hit the timely buckets last game (a 48-45 loss) and we hit them this game,” said Roe, whose squad had built an 18-4 lead in the first quarter on patience and timely buckets.
Dennis also came through in the clutch in last year’s regional championship game, when she came off the bench and scored five points and had one assist in the final five minutes of a 42-36 victory after not playing the first three quarters.
She made sure she was back on the court for the final five minutes again this year after the head-on collision with Clopton.
“I was good,” Dennis said. “I just had to get back in.”
“She was our MVP,” said Roe, citing her outstanding defensive work on All-County Titan Sydney Hines (5 points, 2-for-16 from the floor).
Dennis deflected the praise to her teammates, especially the hard work of the reserves and steady influence of the veteran starters.
“We have really good mental toughness and our bench, even though they don’t play as much, they always stay ready,” Dennis said. “I’m really proud of our first-stringers because they kept their cool during the game.”
No one was cooler than Clopton, who followed a basket by New Town’s Destiney Davis-Betts, that cut the lead to 43-40 with 30 seconds left, with three free throws in the final 25 seconds.
Last year’s trip to UMBC for the final four was the school’s first in history. This year’s return trip was a tougher journey.
“It’s great because I didn’t think anybody thought we would repeat, because we lost talent, but look at the people that stepped up,” coach Roe said.
They graduated 6-footers Jayde Duncan and Ateh Ade and point guard Tyshay Montgomery, but Dixon and Spliedt returned after missing the entire season because of injury last year, and Dennis moved into a starting role.
The 5-foot-2 Spliedt contributed a key basket in the first half and finished with four rebounds and a steal against New Town.
Gourdine, a freshman who missed a month this season with a concussion, had five rebounds and three steals.
Although Tapley didn’t score, she contributed seven rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists against New Town.
“She did the little things and she gave us good minutes,” Roe said. “Everyone is stepping up.”
“It feels great because people don’t look at Western Tech as a basketball school,” Coles said. “For us to go to states two years in a row, that’s something big.”