SAWMILLS - The McDowell Lady Titans were lured into a low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of battle Friday night at South Caldwell High School.
It was the kind of ballgame that the Lady Spartans and head coach Jeff Parham wanted as a home underdog. Fortunately, the Lady Titans scratched out of a fourth-quarter deficit and escaped Sawmills with a 35-31 victory.
The win Friday night capped off an important week for the Lady Titans as the team garnered wins against both South Caldwell and Alexander Central. Those victories, along with three Lady Spartans losses in the past five days, allowed McDowell (14-8 overall, 8-4 NW 3A/4A) to clinch the Northwestern Conference’s automatic bid in the 4A classification with two regular-season games left. McDowell and South Caldwell are the league's only 4A schools.
The Lady Titans will qualify for the state playoffs for the  34th consecutive season. With the playoff format implemented this year in the 4A classification, McDowell will most likely receive a first-round bye and a second-round home game in the upcoming 4A state basketball tournament.
A lot of this wasn’t decided until the final moments of Friday night’s battle on the hardwood as McDowell had a battle back from a second-half deficit.
The Lady Titans were in front through most of the first half, including a 22-18 lead at the break. However, South Caldwell (8-13, 4-8) made back-to-back 3-pointers to begin the second half. Mackenzie Starnes' long 3-pointer with 6:02 left gave the Lady Spartans their fifth lead of the night at 24-22 and  they held it for the rest of the third quarter, actually increasing it to 29-25 after three quarters.
Then, in the final eight minutes, South Caldwell effectively shortened the game by holding the ball out. Ahead by just two points after a pair of made free throws by McDowell’s Hayley Creasman roughly 30 seconds into the fourth, the Lady Spartans stalled the basketball, forced McDowell into abandoning the half-court trap to go man-to-man. The strategy employed by South Caldwell resulted in a possession that spanned nearly two-and-a-half minutes.
The only problem was that the Lady Spartans couldn’t score any points in that possession and in the next five attempts on their end, over a span of all but the final 15 seconds of the game. McDowell took advantage of the failed execution by South and made some big plays.
It started when Makayla Brewer tied the game 29-29 on a baseline jumper with 4:43 left. Then, after making a stop on another long, drawn-out possession, Creasman made what turned out to be the game-winning 3 at the 1:49 mark after stealing the ball and getting it back at the top of the key from point guard Candace Cooper.
Creasman made another steal at the 1:07 mark and was fouled trying to advance the ball up the court in transition, making two free throws with 57 seconds left to put McDowell in front 34-29.
McDowell outscored South Caldwell 10-2 in the fourth quarter despite the Lady Spartans' attempt to hold the ball. 
Brewer led McDowell with 14 points and nine rebounds. Six of those 14 points came in the first quarter for Brewer. Creasman (6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) finished with 13 points. Silese Carson netted three points. Lily McKinney (5 rebounds) and Katelyn Smith had two points each and Dezi Williams finished with one point.
Senior guard Payton Kale scored a team high 10-points for South Caldwell.
Friday's win also guarantees the Lady Titans will finished no lower than third in the league standings. McDowell finishes out the regular season next week with a pair of road games starting Tuesday at West Caldwell (4:30 jayvee boys).
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