Going to state… Lady ‘Landers bench Lady Indians in Class A sectional showdown
BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
ONEIDA – The Cloudland Lady Highlanders have heard the faint beats of a drum since last season’s gut-wrenching final second winning shot by Oneida sent the Lady Indians to the 2020 Class A state tournament that never got to play out due to COVID-19.
However, the only sound the Lady Highlanders will be hearing to close out this season will be a community of Cloudland supporters in the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University cheering the Lady ‘Landers on during the 2021 Class A Girls BlueCross Championship after an exhilarating 50-46 win over Oneida in sectional play once again on the Lady Indians home floor in Oneida.
Even after falling behind 12-6 at the end of the first quarter and 22-18 by intermission, one could tell this game had a lot more nailbiting and intense action to come in the second half as Cloudland had been there and done that and were ready to make their move at the right time.
Kelsey Pike managed to put her Lady Indian team out front with nine points in the opening half of play and received contributing support from Gracie Martin who added six points.
Gracie Freeman led the Lady Highlanders in the first half scoring five points. Ella Benfield was spinning her magic on the inside scoring four points.
Heaven Caraway also added a trey as the Lady Highlanders finally found some success from beyond the arc after having struggled a few games.
The Lady ‘Lander finally made their move coming out of the locker room as they turned the four-point deficit into a two-point lead by the end of the third quarter outscoring Oneida 16-10.
Karah Fields led the charge in the stanza with five points. Caraway and Freeman each knocked down a long three-ball and Cloudland hit 3-of-4 from the foul line.
The action became fast and furious as the Highlanders built their lead to four before Oneida came roaring back to take a one-point advantage.
Instead of folding, Cloudland once again burst out to a five-point lead that they weren’t going to relinquish to force Oneida to foul and send the Lady ‘Landers to the foul line 13 times in the final eight minutes of play where Cloudland hit nine of those freebies.
A pair of Freeman foul shots sealed the deal late and the final buzzer brought elation from the Cloudland cheering section and the players as the Lady Highlanders had signed their name to a final eight appearance at the state tournament.
“We were only down four at the half and I told the girls, I said listen we have to win two quarters and if you win the third quarter and take the lead it puts you in the driver’s seat to win the game and they did, they really responded,” said Cloudland head coach Matt Birchfield.
“We had a stretch there in the third that was really good, made some shots and took the lead by going up four to five and they come back and cut to two. The girls really answered on defense.
“We were really due,” Birchfield continued. “We hadn’t shot well from the outside. North Greene played good defense and we hadn’t shot well in some other games but Freeman came in and made a few and Caraway made a few. We were due to make one sometime.
“Going through all these things that we have overcome, these kids just have a big heart and a will to win.”
Freeman led the way for the Lady Highlanders with 13 points in the contest including three treys – something Cloudland had desperately been missing.
Fields tallied 12 points in the victory adding a trey and going 3-of-4 from the charity stripe in the fourth period.
Jasmine Birchfield added seven points while Caraway finished with six points from beyond the arc. Ella Benfield also chipped in with six points while Mandy Benfield tossed in four points and Saharra McKinney added two.
“I knew it was going to be close just like it was last year but we had to calm down and handle the ball, knock down the foul shots when they came to foul us and we had to do the right things and not be crazy and mishandle the ball,” said Jasmine Birchfield after the game.
“I told Gracie (Freeman) when she knocked down the last pair of free throws that is she made them the game was ours. We have to work on our defense and watch some film and do what we do best when we go to state.”
The Lady Indians were paced by Pike with 15 and Katelyn Stiltner who was like a wasp on the inside stinging the Lady Highlanders with rebound stick backs on the offensive end scoring 11 of her 15 in the second half.
Martin finished in double figures with 11.
The Lady Highlanders will play Loretto in the second contest of the tournament at 12:30 pm EST on Wednesday. The winner of that game advances to a Friday contest against the winner of Peabody and Clay County in one semifinal contest.
“You have to go down there and turn loose and play and have fun – they are all there for a reason,” said Matt Birchfield on how to approach the tournament.
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