Despite its overwhelming youth up and down its roster, Long Reach showed poise in the final minutes of its 3A East section II semifinal matchup against Centennial Tuesday, overcoming a second-half deficit and a late fourth quarter surge by the third-seeded Eagles to pull away and cement a 53-48 win.
"That's a huge win. That's huge for the program. This is the first time in the program that we've won seven games in a row. This is the first time as a program that we won in the second round so they're doing a great job of turning the program around," said Lightning coach Kelli Cofield. "I've been here since '09 and we were the team that people came in and got a guaranteed victory over, so as we gain we're getting smarter, getting stronger, getting more confident. I'm really proud of the girls. I'm proud of every one of them. They really played well today."
Two-seeded Long Reach entered Tuesday with most of its roster only touting one game of postseason experience under its belt – which came in their 70-34 first round win over Wilde Lake Feb. 26. However, the Lightning played like savvy veterans against Centennial, as they never seemed frazzled throughout the back-and-forth match.
"That's what we've been talking about. You know, Centennial they're a good team and they're so big. We knew they will make baskets, and usually they don't miss too much in the paint, so every time they scored or brought it within five or took it up one or two points, we never lost confidence and I think that's in our leadership. It's growing," Cofield said. "Both my point guards – Kiana (Williams) especially every game, she's getting better as a leader. We already know how good she is defensively and how to take over a game offensively, but now she's learning to control the team, which I thought she did an awesome job of tonight."
With a first half filled with runs, the initial 16 minutes saw nine different lead changes, with the score knotted on four separate occasions.
The two teams exchanged buckets throughout the quarter, but Long Reach held the edge, coming out with an 11-9 advantage after the first buzzer. The Lightning made a nice play at the end of the period, with Emily Joyce making a block on one end and Williams taking the ball coast-to-coast with the finish and foul on the other. After connecting on the traditional three-point play, Long Reach touted a three-point cushion entering the following eight minutes.
But after the Lightning started the second quarter with the first two buckets, Centennial countered with an 8-0 run, which put the Eagles back in front, 17-15.
The Lightning tied it up two more times at 17-and 19-all, but went on a run of their own midway through the quarter, which saw them get out in front by as much as four with less than three minutes remaining in the half. However, Centennial ended the quarter on a 7-0 advantage and got out in front, 26-23 to end the half.
Long Reach regrouped and took over the start of the third quarter, as it went on a 9-0 run through the first four and a half minutes, with the Eagles finally finding their first bucket of the period at the 3:33 mark with a made shot by senior Kewa Gray.
Freshman guard Lyric Swann was the catalyst through the quarter, notching nine of the Lightning's 15 points in the period and aiding a 38-32 lead entering the final eight minutes.
"She said we needed to work together as a unit. We needed to talk more on defense and get more touches and passes," Swann said of her Cofield's halftime talk. " I just felt like I needed to look for my shot more and be more confident, because this is the playoffs and I need to be consistent with my shot… All we knew is that we needed to close out the game. We needed this win to get to the next round and just work as a team."
Centennial fought hard to regain the lead in the fourth quarter, but couldn't overcome the six-point disadvantage. The Eagles got within one twice in the last minute and 30 seconds, with Gray coming in clutch with a bucket inside, making the score 47-46, but Devon Williams responded with a made jumper for Long Reach, which quickly put the Lightning back up by three.
With 55.8 seconds left, Kelly Simmons connected on a bucket in the paint, closing the gap 49-48. The Eagles immediately called a timeout after the made score with the hopes of getting a stop on the other end, but Long Reach freshman Arianna Briggs-Hall had other plans. The Lightning worked the shot clock on their ensuing possession. Williams eventually put up a jumper with time expiring, but her shot careened off the rim and Briggs-Hall came in, picked up the offensive board and laid-in the put back, getting Long Reach back up 51-48 with 20.6 seconds to play.
"The last one, we got a stop and called a timeout just to get Kewa back in the game and you know, (Briggs-Hall) got an offensive board, we got to box out. Bottom-line, she got the board and put it back in; that's a tough play," said Centennial coach Bobby Macheel. "The plan was to call a timeout, get a defensive stop and then get Kewa back in the game, but you know, didn't happen that way."
"That was huge, not only because it was a timely bucket, but she missed a couple leading up to that and it didn't dissuade her from taking it again," Cofield added. "That was a huge bucket. She muscles down there and she's strong, and sometimes she doesn't get the calls, but she continues on. She plays really, really hard. She's been doing a good job on the offensive board. I think she averages close to seven offensive rebounds… We started this year thinking that we would get out-rebounded on a nightly basis being that we were so short. Most of our girls are shorter than 5-5, 5-6, but it's the effort that we get a lot of boards and Centennial goes to the glass hard, so we really wanted to concentrate on boxing out, especially boxing out Kelly. Ifeoma (Ezimako) did a good job throughout the night. Being the great player that she is, she got to some loose balls, she got to some offensive rebounds – but I think they handled their assignments well."
The Eagles desperately needed a quick bucket, but couldn't connect on their following attempt and with the Lightning picking up the defensive board, they were forced to foul, stopping the clock and hoping Long Reach misses some free throws.
But sophomore Kiana Williams stepped to the line and calmly sank both attempts, icing the win for the Lightning.
"It came down to their guards made a couple plays and we talked about live ball turnovers, because they got out in passing lanes and they run the ball really well. All the credit goes to them. I think my team played hard, I know we prepared hard," Macheel said. "Jesse (Dunagan) definitely (played well). She played well against Reservoir too… Most of our turnovers were off of weak passes, but other than that I thought Ally (Driscoll) did a nice job of taking the ball up the court and not letting (Kiana Williams) fluster her too much. But you know, I thought everybody got in some contributions. Again, I just think it came down to a couple plays. It's just too bad for my seniors. Kewa seems to step up in pressure situations. Last year against Poly she kind of carried us with foul trouble in the playoffs, and same thing today I thought she did a really good job. And Kelly did Kelly. She had a good game. I know she's kicking herself right now, but I thought she did a good job. She was getting attacked on the boards. They were hanging on her arms and she's so strong and so good."
Kiana Williams finished a strong outing with a team-high 17 points, while Swann followed with 14 on the day, with Devon Williams chipping in with nine points.
"It's so awesome to see Lyric go through this faze, because one, she's a freshman and she's so young, so everything is a brand new experience but she's taking it in stride. She's learning by possession by possession. I thought in the first half she wasn't as aggressive as we would want her to be and in the second half I said, 'stop thinking, you're a shooter, you're a scorer. Shoot, if it goes in that's awesome, if it gets blocked that's OK, you'll shoot the next one. If it misses, it's OK.' So in the second half she did well of being more aggressive," Cofield said. "But Devon hit a timely basket. She was in foul trouble and Devon was in a little bit of pain, so we tried to get her on and off the court, but she really holds us down. Kiana leads us offensively and Lyric leads us also in scoring, but Devon is really a true leader of this team. She keeps us calm, she keeps us collected, which is a big part of us not getting riled up."
Centennial was led by the outstanding play of Gray. In her final game for the Eagles she registered a game-high 22 points and was relentless attacking the basket throughout the game. Simmons followed with 17 points, adding numerous blocks to her stat line, while senior Ally Driscoll finished up with seven points in her last outing.
"Just thanked the seniors. All of them came such a long way," Macheel said of what he told his girls after the season-ending loss. "Izzie (Chausse), it's too bad she had an eye injury, she's been coming along and just kind of kept her down a little bit. Kewa obviously had a great game. Ally had a great three years with me, Jesse is a beast, and Peyton (Conley) has been a rock for us all season. So I just thanked the seniors and that's about all you can say in a situation like this."
As for the Lightning, they move on and play top-seeded Glenelg in the 3A East section II finals Thursday. The two teams split their two earlier meetings this season.
"It should be a good game," Cofield added. "It's a rubber-knecker game. We had them the first game, we were brand new, then we got them on this court. We have to go there, they have some great players on their end and I think we have some great ones on our end, so I think it's going to be a great matchup. I'm excited about that game."
Long Reach 53, Centennial 48 (3A East) (Tuesday, March 1)
LR (14-5, 17-5): K. Williams 17, L. Swann 14, D. Williams 9, Ezimako 6, Briggs-Hall 5, Thompson 2.
C (11-8, 15-9): Gray 22, Simmons 17, Driscoll 7, McCree 2.
Half: 26-23 C.
G (15-4, 19-4): Foster 22, Henggeler 14, Mattis 9, Butera 7, Wolfrey 6, Stone 6, Johnson 6, Arrington 2.
RH (7-12, 10-13): Poindexter 28, Dawit 11, Hopkins 9, Fenton 4, Feinberg 2, Dannelly 2, Grasso 2.
Ho (22-2): Scott 18, Lewis 10, Addison 9, Furr 8, Kinsey 2.
PB (): McFadden 20, Ashe 12, Glover 6, Stewart 2, McClaney 2, Ngwafang 2.
Half: 19-17 Ho.
Stephen Decatur 53, Hammond 37 (3A East) (Tuesday, March 1)
Chesapeake 48, Atholton 43 (3A East) (Tuesday, March 1)