By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
As McKinney High’s Mariah Mitchell stepped to the free throw line with 10 seconds remaining in the game Tuesday night, the Lionettes were up 47-43 over crosstown rival McKinney Boyd. While the players on the bench were doing their best to contain their emotions, most of the Lionettes fans were focused squarely on the scoreboard, hoping somehow that the seconds could keep running off the clock and they could begin celebrating one of the more unlikely playoff berths in program history.
“We didn’t hide anything from our kids early in the season,” said Lionettes girls basketball coach Debbie Harris. “They knew that they were ranked last in our district by all of the district coaches, The Dallas Morning News, almost everybody picked them to finish in last place. We never hid that from them.”
After Mitchell knocked down both shots to extend the lead to six, the McKinney student and parent section rose to their feet and burst out into a loud ringing of cheers, as the preseason underdogs had overcome an up-and-down regular season to claim the fourth and final playoff spot out of District 10-5A with a 49-43 victory over the Lady Broncos.
“They understand what their weaknesses are and I think they have used that as strength. They are proud and I am proud of them,” said Harris after the game.
The Lionettes finished the regular season with an 18-16 record overall, and their 4-6 mark in District 10-5A is tied for third place with Plano East after the Lady Panthers lost to Plano West on Tuesday night. McKinney will face Plano East on Friday night at Wylie High School for third place in 10-5A, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
While both teams will play past Friday night, the winner of the game avoids the dubious honor of facing TABC No. 19 Dallas Skyline in the bi-district round.
Despite the jubilation from the Lionettes side of the gym, the Lady Broncos ended a rocky season with a 12-20 overall record, while their 2-8 mark in 10-5A tied them for last place with Allen. A victory over McKinney coupled with an Allen loss versus Plano would have placed the Lady Broncos into the postseason, but missed opportunities and a large second-half deficit proved to be too much for Boyd to overcome.
“We treated it like a playoff game,” said Boyd head coach Rochelle Vaughn. “I think we turned it on just a little bit too late. We made a great run back at them the last two minutes of the game, but it was just a little too late. Our effort tonight was better than the last couple of games, so I told our girls that we gave great effort and that is all I can ask for. Someone has to lose and tonight it was us, but I think the girls can look back and say they played hard.”
The first-year head coach had an “up-and-down” season to say the least, but Vaughn said that both her players and herself learned a lot of lessons from this season.
“It was a learning experience and I am blessed to have this opportunity to be with this great group of young ladies,” said Vaughn. “They taught me a lot and hopefully I taught them some things, but I think I learned more from them than they probably did from me. I think we have a great platform to build on and a great nucleus coming back.”
The Lady Broncos are losing six seniors to graduation, including their leading scorer and team leader Julia Hendrieth. The Dillard University commit will be difficult to replace next year for all the things she is able to do on the basketball court, according to Vaughn.
“Julia was our engine. She did a little bit of everything for us, whether that was rebounding or finishing around the basket. I don’t think we did a good job of getting her the basketball like we wanted to,” said Vaughn. “That was our game plan but they did a better job of sagging off defensively on her. They tried to double and triple team her when she did get the ball, so our guards have to do a better job of feeding her the ball in the post.”
While the 2013-14 Lady Broncos will look much different than this year’s ensemble, Boyd will return starting guard Haley Carruthers, forward Jordan Brightwell, and guard Natalie Maina. Carruthers finished with nine points while Brightwell had three points and nine total rebounds, and Maina had three points and one steal.
“I think our girls realized that they could compete. The younger girls realized what it takes to play at that level, week in and week out. We can’t afford to have silly mistakes and turnovers, so I think our freshmen and sophomores grew up today, which is always a positive, “said Vaughn.
In the first quarter the two rivals traded the lead back-and-forth eight times, with McKinney’s Jazsmin Nelson stealing the early spotlight at the junior forward scored her team’s first 11 points of the game, including three straight shots from beyond the arc.
Heading into the second quarter the Lionettes led 15-12, while both teams combined for 10 turnovers through the first eight minutes of the contest. The Lady Broncos would finish with 19 turnovers while the Lionettes turned the ball over 16 times.
After scoring five points in the opening quarter, the Lady Broncos were doing everything they could to feed the ball down in the paint to Hendrieth, with very little positive results. The senior finished with just two points in the quarter, while a late Maina lay-up with one second remaining in the half had Boyd trailing 21-20 at halftime.
The second half was none too kind to the visiting team, as a Carruthers lay-up with 7:15 left in the third quarter to make it 22-21 was the last time the Lady Broncos would have the lead. After McKinney’s Leslie Zupanic hit a jumper to put the Lionettes back in front by one, Hendrieth made one-of-two free throws to tie the game up at 23-23 with about five minutes remaining.
A Mika Stutts jumper would give McKinney a two-point lead, and the home team would get the lead to as big as nine several times in the second half, including late into the fourth quarter will less than two minutes remaining. For the Lionettes the second half belonged to Mitchell, who scored 16 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, including eight of the 11 points scored in the fourth quarter by McKinney.
While Nelson didn’t record a point after the opening quarter, Harris said that both her and Mitchell have been key cogs in their team’s offense since day one.
“We would like to have a little more balance scoring, but they have been our leading scorers almost all year long,” said Harris.
McKinney was celebrating several events before and after the game, including middle school night and senior night. Nicole Quincy and Brittany Collard are the only two seniors on the roster for the Lionettes, who were honored after the game in a short ceremony. Collard played sparingly in the game while Quincy finished with two points and four assists.
Even though the crowd was not tremendously loud until late into the fourth quarter, Harris said it was great to see such a large turnout from the home student body on her senior’s final game at MHS.
“We were very fortunate to finish our season where we had the home court advantage, senior night, and middle school night. It is good for our girls to have that fan support because it is not something that they always get.
“It was fun.”
McKinney will face Plano East at Wylie for third place in 10-5A, beginning at 6:30 p.m.