When you start from the bottom, as Long Reach coach Kelli Cofield did when she took over a three-win Lightning program nine years ago, it gives you a greater appreciation for the top.
So as Cofield clutched the 3A East region championship plaque Saturday evening moments after securing a 67-48 win over J.M. Bennett — earning the program its second straight region crown — she was making sure to soak in the moment.
“I often have to remind people, especially those who have only become aware of our program the last couple years, it wasn’t always like this. Myself and this coaching staff, we know the time it took and the hard times we had to go through … but it absolutely does make it that much sweeter when you get to this point,” Cofield said. “And this team, this group of girls that has now reached the mountain top of winning a region championship two straight years, they deserve all the credit in the world for building this.
“Nothing has been handed to them, they’ve had to earn everything they have accomplished.”
The sister combination of seniors Jaelyn Swann (21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks) and Lyric Swann (20 points, 4 steals and 3 assists) put on a show against the Clippers in this year’s region final. The two combined to hit 10 3-pointers, including five in a span of just over three minutes early in the third quarter, to provide the offensive spark Long Reach (18-4) needed to separate itself on the way to victory.
That hot shooting from the outside to open the second half, along with some tough finishes in the paint from Rebecca Ford (8 points and 8 rebounds), helped ignite a 21-0 run that turned a seven-point 32-25 halftime advantage for the Lightning into a blowout.
“It’s a great feeling when you get the ball and then you shoot it and then you are just like ‘I know that’s going in.’ And then you get so hyped even more for that next shot,” said Jaelyn Swann, who hit seven 3-pointers overall and four in the third quarter. “It just gives you more confidence and it helps our team.”
Long Reach advances into a 3A state semifinal match-up Thursday at 9 p.m. against two-time defending state-champion Frederick in a game that will serve as a rematch of last year’s 3A final that the Cadets won 62-50.
J.M. Bennett (17-7), which started Saturday’s game slow but had regrouped to tie the game on three different occasions in the second quarter, was led by some inspired play from Olivia Owens (17 points), Zy’Aire “Peanut” Smullen (16) and Mekara Hanson (13).
But the Lightning closed the first half on a 9-2 run and then carried that momentum right into the second half. By the time Owens finally got the Clippers on the scoreboard courtesy of a layup with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Long Reach had built itself a 28-point advantage.
“I thought we had adjusted well in the middle of the first half, following the sisters close everywhere they went. But then in that third quarter, mentally we lost them and [Jaelyn] in particular went off. We missed a few shots of our own and before you know it, you look up and the game had gotten away from us,” J.M. Bennett coach Darren Rogers said. “[Jaelyn] was just on fire and everything she put up was going in at one point. I haven’t seen a girl hit that many threes in a row in a long time.”
While the Swann duo certainly was at the forefront all evening, Long Reach got strong contributions from each of its regular rotation players. Haley Thompson (4 points and 16 rebounds), Malaya Streeter (8 points and 5 assists) and Jalyn Richardson (4 points) all helped key the decisive push in the second half.
Even Maya Proctor came in off the bench for a big basket early in the fourth quarter when the Lightning found themselves in a little foul trouble.
Looking ahead to the rematch with Frederick at Towson University’s SECU Arena, Cofield is excited to see how her team fares against one of the state’s best.
“Frederick are the [defending] champions for a reason, and that’s a tremendous team with a star player in Makayla [Daniels]. So we absolutely know what we are going up against,” Cofield said. “At the same time, we aren’t shying away from the challenge. I think our experience, having played against them already on that stage, will definitely help.”
Long Reach 67, J.M. Bennett 48 (3A East final)
LR (18-4): J. Swann 21, L. Swann 20, Ford 8, Streeter 8, Thompson 4, Richardson 4, Proctor 2.
JMB (17-7): Owens 17, Smullen 16, Hanson 13, Conick 2.
Half: 32-25 LR.
Reach Brent Kennedy at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports