By ADAM GORE
SPRINGVILLE — The Lady Warriors of Pontotoc High hit four free throws in the final minute of the game to hold on for a 51-49 victory over the determined South Pontotoc Lady Cougars in Saturday night’s title game of the South Pontotoc Invitational.
The free throw line proved to be the pivotal point in the contest, when the Lady Cougars missed both their fourth quarter attempts.
Trailing 47-42 with under two minutes to play, the Lady Cougars had to commit four fouls before putting the Lady Warriors on the line.
“Once we got in the one-and-one, we knew we had to get the ball in Di’s (Di’Amber Johnson) hands,” declared Lady Warrior head coach Bill Russell.
Johnson hit a pair of free throws to put the Lady Warriors up 49-42 with 51.7 seconds to go, but the Lady Cougars were not going away quietly.
After a South Pontotoc lay-up and a missed Pontotoc free throw, senior Raelynn Putman called for the ball and nailed a three pointer from the left wing to make it a 49-47 game with 15.3 seconds left.
The Lady Warriors then got the ball to Johnson and she put the game on ice with a pair of free throws before Putman could knocked down a jumper at the other end to make it a 51-49 game as time ran out.
“I thought the girls gave a valiant effort,” said Lady Cougar head coach Matt Waldrop. “When you are down nine against a heavily favored team and are able to make a run, that shows a lot of resilience on your part.”
The first half saw numerous lead changes between the two rivals as South Pontotoc took an 11-9 advantage by the end of the first quarter.
PHS fought back to take a 21-20 advantage at the end of the first half in front of a very raucous packed house.
“Their triangle and two put us on a slow start and we missed a lot of shots so we weren’t able to get in our press as much as we like,” Coach Russell explained. “Getting in our press is a key for us.”
“You need to survive any team that presses and I thought we did a good job of that by hitting some shots and protecting the basketball,” Coach Waldrop said. “Overall I thought we attacked their press well.”
Pontotoc took advantage of five third-quarter SP turnovers to build on their one-point halftime lead, but the Lady Cougars shot fifty percent from the floor and made all their free throw attempts to keep the game within reach at 39-30 heading into the final period.
Junior Jessi Hayles hit a 10-foot jumper to spark a 10-0 run over the first 4:13 of the fourth quarter to give South a 40-39 advantage.
Pontotoc shot a dismal 0-5 from the floor and committed three turnovers before senior Lauren Rosado knocked down a jumper to regain the lead at 41-39 for the Lady Warriors.
“I feel like we lost focus, but were able to get some steals and finally finish lay-ups down the stretch to swing things in our favor,” Russell said.
Enter Di’Amber Johnson.
South Pontotoc once again broke the Lady Warrior press for what looked to be an easy lay-up for C.C. Hollis when Johnson made a great defensive effort in transition to deny Hollis’ lay-up attempt. Di’ gave her team a 43-40 advantage as she finished the play with a lay-up on the other end.
Enter Raelynn Putman.
A Pontotoc turnover resulted in a eight-foot jumper by Putman that pulled the Lady Cougars to within one at 43-42 with 2:39 left in the quarter.
But an offensive put-back and a South turnover put the Lady Warriors on a 4-0 run that gave them a 47-42 lead.
“I think we ran out of steam and started committing unforc-ed turnovers that hurt us to-wards the end of the game,” Coach Waldrop explained.
“Free throws have been a thorn in our side this season, but it is what won it for us tonight,” Coach Russell declared.
“This is the second time this season we have lost a big game on the free throw line,” Coach Waldrop said, referring to their two-point loss to Tupelo in the Pontotoc Invitational.
“We hit over 75 percent in normal games, but for some reason we have gone cold from the line in big games this season.”
Johnson finished with a game high 22-points for the Lady Warriors, while Hayles paced the Lady Cougars with 18 and Putman added 15.