MORGANTON – The McDowell Lady Titans seemingly had things under control at halftime of their Northwestern 3A/4A Conference tournament semifinal against the Freedom Lady Patriots Thursday.
But the team that built a 26-14 halftime advantage was nowhere to be found after the break.
Freedom (21-4) executed a 28-point turnaround to beat the Lady Titans 60-44 and advance to Friday’s tournament championship game against Watauga.
McDowell (16-10) had things its way in the opening half, but the Lady Patriots, the state’s seventh-ranked 3A squad, pumped the ball inside to their big-bodied frontcourt players and shot 55 percent from the floor after intermission, using their huge size advantage to great effect.
Freedom, who tied with Watauga for the regular-season championship, needed to win in order to force a third meeting with the Pioneers to see which would get the league’s top seed for the State 3A Playoffs, which begin next week.
As a result, Freedom displayed a bit more urgency in the second half.
A crucial stretch at the beginning of the fourth quarter that saw the Lady Titans turn the ball over four straight times down the court turned out to be the back-breaker.
Wing Madison Bailey led Freedom with 18 points, making 4-of-8 from long range. Blaikley Crooks (6 rebounds) added 15 and C.C. Davenport tossed in 12 and pulled 14 boards.
All but 10 of the trio’s combined 45 points came in the second half.
“Obviously, turnovers in the second half killed us,” said Lady Titans head coach Jennifer Kinninger. “And then they started making shots, which they didn’t do in the first half. With that combination of us not having possessions and them making shots was not a good combo going down the stretch. Kudos to Freedom; there was a lot riding on it for them, but I really wanted this for our girls. They’ve worked very hard all year and I wanted them to win one of these big games.”
Guard Dezi Williams was the only Lady Titan in double figures with 15 points to go with six rebounds and six steals. Taylor Buchanan came off the bench for seven points, including five in a row during a first-quarter run that saw McDowell take early command.
With the game tied 8-8, the Lady Titans scored nine of the next 10 and led 17-9 after one quarter. They stretched the lead to 12 at halftime and it reached as many as 13 at 28-15 on a basket by Lily McKinney (9 rebounds) with 5:40 left in the third.
But Freedom chipped away at the lead and got within 35-33 at the end of three.
That’s when the Lady Titans coughed it up four times in a row, and the Lady Patriots converted the miscues into seven unanswered points.
Davenport tied the game with a put-back on the first possession of the fourth. McDowell gave the ball right back, and Adair Garrison scored in the paint. Another error led to a free throw from Davenport, and Crooks made a steal and layup to give Freedom a 40-35 lead with 6:18 to play.
It was all Freedom the rest of the way; the Lady Pats outscored McDowell 27-9 in the fourth quarter and 46-18 in the second half. Freedom, which had shot just 22 percent (4 of 22) in the first half and uncharacteristically blew several layups, went 16-of-29 in the second.
Despite the loss, Kinninger said she’s impressed with the progress the Lady Titans have made this season. After struggling to find an identity early on, McDowell has played increasingly better as the season has progressed.
McDowell’s 10 losses have come at the hands of six teams who are a combined 121-26 this season. Freedom and Watauga are seventh and eighth respectively in the 3A poll, Mitchell has been ranked most of the season in 1A, and East Burke is the top-ranked 2A team in the state. Asheville Christian Academy (23-1) is No. 1 in the NCISAA 2A rankings.
“I’m proud of these girls,” said Kinninger. “If you look back at the beginning of the year, the difference between the effort and the toughness and the will, from then to now, is just totally different. To see these girls grow as players and grow together as a team, I’m very proud of them.”
The conference tournament had no bearing on McDowell’s State 4A Playoff status. The Lady Titans will enter the tourney as the NWC’s top 4A seed, and will get a first-round bye Tuesday and a home game Thursday.
“We’ve got a new season now. It starts on Monday,” said Kinninger. “We’ll wait and see who we get matched up with Saturday and then get prepared.”
McDowell (44) Hayley Creasman 2-6 0-0 4, Lily McKinney 1-3 0-0 2, Makayla Brewer 2-2 1-1 5, Dezi Williams 3-13 7-9 15, Candace Cooper 2-7 0-0 5, Zoe Miller 1-6 2-2 4, Taylor Buchanan 2-5 3-3 7, Ariel Lineberger 0-0 2-2 2, Emma Banks 0-0 0-0 0, Silese Carson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 13-42 15-17 44.
Freedom (60) Madison Bailey 6-11 2-4 18, Adair Garrison 4-10 1-4 9, Blaikley Crooks 6-11 2-3 15, C.C. Davenport 3-8 6-9 12, Aysha Short 1-4 1-1 3, Amaiya Williams 0-3 3-4 3, Viasha Tate 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 20-47 15-25 60.
McDowell 17 09 09 09 – 44
Freedom 09 05 19 27 – 60
Rebounds: McDowell (26) Freedom (30) Rebound leaders: McDowell (McKinney 9) Freedom (Davenport 14) 3-point goals: McDowell (3-16) Freedom (5-12) McDowell (Williams 2-5, Cooper 1-3, Creasman 0-3, Miller 0-5) McDowell assist leaders: (McKinney 3) McDowell blocked shot leaders: (McKinney, Brewer, Lineberger 1) Turnovers: McDowell (21) Freedom (16)