Remove one single factor, and the McDowell Lady Titans would almost certainly have won their Northwestern 3A/4A Conference opener against the Hickory Red Tornados Friday.
That factor was a 6-foot-5 sophomore named Shelby Darden.
McDowell (0-1 NWC, 3-3 overall) had no answer for Darden, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Tornados (1-0, 2-4) past the Lady Titans 58-44 in a game much closer than the final would seem to indicate.
The Lady Titans trailed the entire second half, but got as close as 49-44 with less than two minutes to play. But they never got over the hump.
“Our girls played really hard and it was a very physical game,” said Lady Titans head coach Jennifer Kinninger. “I did think there were some stretches where we did some good things, where we moved the ball well and looked to attack the basket and looked good on defense.
“But there were some stretches where we gave up some things, especially in the third quarter. We gave up several turnovers and some offensive rebounds at key times. In the fourth quarter, we fought back and I was super proud of our girls for that.”
McDowell trailed 49-39 with 2:35 to play on a basket by Hickory’s Mikayla Hill (13 points), and a comeback seemed unlikely.
But Candace Cooper buried a 3-pointer off an assist from Dezi Williams just 10 seconds later to trim the deficit to 49-42. Makayla Brewer made a steal and then canned a pair of free throws, and McDowell was within five with 1:41 to play.
But Darden scored in the low post to make it 51-44 with 1:24 to go, and that was the end of the Lady Titans’ comeback.
Williams was the only McDowell player in double figures with 11 points. Hayley Creasman (7 rebounds) added nine. Taylor Buchanan came off the bench for seven points.
Post Lily McKinney (4 points), giving up what seemed like a foot in height to Darden, still pulled 15 rebounds. Brewer, playing despite some painful knee and lower-leg issues, had six points and eight boards.
But McDowell turned it over 24 times and gave up 14 offensive rebounds, and eventually, Hickory made use of all the extra possessions.
“We’ve got to find a way to grow from this,” said Kinninger. “There are things we need to work on – offensive rebounding, limiting our turnovers, putting ourselves in position where we don’t give away points. I love this group and I want to see them be successful.”
Early on, it was anybody’s game: The first half featured nine lead changes and two ties.
McDowell went ahead for the final time when Williams blocked a 3-pointer and then sailed in for a layup to make it 20-19 with 3:10 left in the half. Williams made one of two free throws moments later to stretch the advantage to 21-19.
But Mason Paradine nailed a 3-pointer at the 2:00 mark for a 22-21 advantage, and Hickory led the rest of the way. It was 26-23 at the break, and Paradine’s 3 represented the only Hickory points that didn’t come from close range or at the free throw line in the first half.
The Tornados extended the lead to 40-29 at the end of three, thanks in large part to nine McDowell turnovers in the quarter.
The Lady Titans faced a quick turnaround Saturday, hosting Mitchell in a game that was postponed due to winter weather earlier in the week. Results were not available at press time.
McDowell is on the road at conference foe St. Stephens Tuesday (4 p.m. jayvee girls) in the final game before the Christmas break.
Note: Friday’s game marked the first time in a quarter-century the Lady Titans and Hickory squared off in conference play. The last time the two played in Titan Gym was January 22, 1993. Both squads were highly ranked in the state. McDowell’s Missy Dyer made a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 59-58 win that kept the Lady Titans perfect at 14-0.
Hickory (58) Shania Johnson 2-16 3-4 9, Mason Paradine 1-5 0-0 3, Mikayla Hill 5-11 3-6 13, Finley Lefevers 0-2 0-2 0, Shelby Darden 5-10 7-11 17, Kayla Soublet 2-3 5-9 9, Chloe James 1-2 0-0 2, Ellie Rumbaugh 0-1 0-0 0, Leah Knowles 0-0 0-2 0, Kara Byrd 2-2 1-2 5, Shelby Orton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-52 19-36 58.
McDowell (44) Hayley Creasman 3-10 2-2 9, Lily McKinney 1-3 2-5 4, Makayla Brewer 2-2 2-4 6, Dezi Williams 3-12 5-11 11, Candace Cooper 1-4 0-0 3, Zoe Miller 1-8 2-3 4, Taylor Buchanan 3-6 1-2 7, Katelyn Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Silese Carson 0-0 0-0 0, Emma Banks 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 14-45 14-27 44.
Hickory 11 15 14 18 – 58
McDowell 09 14 06 15 – 44
Rebounds: Hickory (35) McDowell (34) Rebound leaders: Hickory (Darden 15) McDowell (McKinney 15) 3-point goals: Hickory (3-12) McDowell (2-17) Hickory (Johnson 2-10, Paradine 1-2) McDowell (Williams 0-4, Cooper 1-4, Creasman 1-6, Miller 0-3) McDowell assist leaders: (Cooper 3) McDowell steals leaders: (Cooper 4) McDowell blocked shot leaders: (McKinney 2, Williams 1) Turnovers: Hickory (18) McDowell (24) Fouled out: Hickory (Paradine 2:43—fourth, Byrd 1:41—fourth) McDowell (Williams 1:14—fourth, Cooper :21—fourth)