HICKORY – It appeared that the light was at the end of the tunnel for the McDowell Lady Titans in Thursday’s Northwestern 3A/4A Conference tournament semifinal.
Unfortunately, that light turned out to be the runaway train that was the Hickory Lady Red Tornadoes.
Hickory, with the help of its size on the inside and some key conversions at the foul line, pulled away late on its home court to beat McDowell 54-43 and advance to Friday’s championship game against top seed Freedom.
While the game was not played in a most efficient manner, the semifinal still didn’t lack plenty of intensity by both squads. The contest, which featured a pair of ties and six lead changes, started to Hickory’s advantage early on as they jumped out to an 11-4 lead after one quarter.
Meanwhile the Lady Titans, while leaving plenty of scoring chances on the table (12 of 21 free throws), did work their way back into the game.
In fact, a 9-0 spurt in the final 90 seconds of the half gave McDowell (17-9) its first lead of the night and a five-point lead at 27-22 going into halftime.
Most of the second half was a back-and-forth battle.
Shelby Darden’s layup in the paint off a Shania Johnson assist put Hickory back in front 33-32 as the third quarter expired.
The final stretch featured a lot of transition basketball as the pace quickened even more. That turned out to be a distinct advantage to Hickory in the end, as they outscored McDowell 21-11 in the fourth with 12 unanswered points over the final 1:54 of play.
The Lady Titans, who turned the ball over 24 times, had 16 of them in the second half. That, along with a slim 38-35 rebounding margin, also played key parts in the final outcome.
“I’m really proud of the girls and their effort on the court playing as a team against Hickory, who is a big team inside and athletic. We really fought hard, especially rebounding the ball,” said McDowell head coach Jennifer Kinninger.
“There were a couple opportunities late where we got it inside but couldn’t capitalize and they on the other end either scored in transition or on a second chance.”
The Lady Titans, after struggling from the line early, made 8 of 11 in the second half. Five of those came in the fourth quarter, including a pair from Makaylah Chandler with 2:23 left to put McDowell in front 43-42.
It was at this juncture where Hickory took over. After both teams swapped possessions, Makayla Hill scored and was fouled on a layup with 1:54 to go.
Then, after a McDowell miss on the other end, Mason Paradine scored on a backdoor cut and lay-in off a Kayla Soublet assist, giving Hickory a 46-43 lead.
The Lady Titans tried down the stretch to attack the inside, but a pair of Dezi Williams drive attempts were either blocked or altered due to physical play by the Lady Red Tornadoes posts.
“I thought there were a couple times late in which some calls could have been made on the inside. It was physical in the paint,” said Kinninger.
With about a minute left, McDowell started fouling to lengthen the game, but Hickory made 6 of 8 from the line, putting the game away. The 6-foot-4 Darden capped off the late run with a basket, giving her team a double-figure margin for the last three seconds of game time.
Williams (9 rebounds, 2 steals) finished with 15 points. Chandler (11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) and Naliyah Boyce (6 rebounds) had seven points each.
Makenna Parkins (4 steals, 4 rebounds) and Zoe Miller chipped in six points each and Alana Stephenson scored two points.
Hickory did its damage offensively in the paint. Darden had 12 points while Hill, Soublet and Finley Lefevers had nine points apiece.
McDowell will now turn its attention to the upcoming State 4A Playoffs. Brackets for the playoffs were not finalized as of press time, but can be found on the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s website (nchsaa.org).