DENHAM SPRINGS – When a layup from Denham Springs’ Kate Thompson dropped through the net for a 10-point lead and just over five minutes to play, Walker High’s Tiara Young had a message for her teammates.
“I told them to relax and to calm down, we still had time to come back and to just play,” Young said. “We had to keep working, keep fighting and that’s what we did.”
Walker had already displayed its share of resiliency, having to dig out of a 17-point first-quarter hole to later pull even midway through the third quarter until falling behind again by 10 points after Thompson’s basket.
Young, with her future college coach LSU’s Nikki Fargas in attendance, simply willed her team to the District 4-5A championship Friday before a Grady Hornsby Gymnasium whose lower bowl was filled to capacity.
Young engineered an 18-0 closing run, scoring 11 of her game-high 35 points during that blitz and 13 in the final quarter to erase that double-digit deficit and send Walker to a 58-50 victory over Denham Springs.
“This means everything,” said Young, who was 8 of 25 from the field, but 16 of 19 at the free throw line. “Not only did we win but we’re district champs. This means everything to us.”
Not only did Walker (29-4, 6-0 in district) wrap up the district title, but the Lady Cats extended their win streak to 10 straight and locked up no worse than a No. 2 seed in the Class 5A state playoffs.
Southeastern Louisiana signee Alexius Horne led Denham Springs with 16, while Maddie Howell added 11 and Desiree Jones 10.
“That’s probably the best game I’ve witnessed,” Walker coach Hannah Jones said of Young’s performance which included 20 second-half points. “I know there are some great ones. But that was huge, stepping up, making plays, sinking free throws. She did an awesome job. That was impressive to watch.”
Denham Springs’ coach Blake Zito was part of Young’s mutual admiration society.
“I give her extreme credit,” he said of Young. “She’s a phenomenal player.”
It took a pair of free throws from Young to ignite her team’s finishing kick less than a minute after Denham Springs (24-5, 5-1) went on a 7-0 spurt that resulted in a 48-38 lead on Horne’s second-chance basket.
The Lady Cats’ comeback included a basket from Candace Ellis off an assist from Tarondia Harold followed by a 3-pointer from Young that narrowed the Lady Jackets’ lead to 50-47 with 3:40 to go.
“She’s a competitor,” Jones said of Young. “She’s going to keep fighting. Sometimes that fight turns into one steal and it turns everything around.”
Ellis returned the favor and fed Harold for a 12-footer and Walker took its first lead of the game – with 2:05 showing – on Young’s two free throws.
The Lady Cats further rode that wave of momentum when the smallest player on the court – 5-foot-3 guard Asia Garner – delivered in a big moment, rebounding a missed shot with 1:27 showing for a 53-50 lead which was followed by a Denham Springs turnover.
“That was huge,” Jones said of Garner’s only basket of the game and her fourth point. “That’s a senior stepping up in a big game and I couldn’t be prouder of her. I think I might have jumped (up) and that was the only time.”
Young scored her team’s next four points and Garner capped the stretch of 18 unanswered points with a free throw with 8.6 seconds left.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Young, who was 8-of-9 in the fourth quarter at the free throw line. “We just felt this was a revenge game (for 54-38 loss to DSHS in parish championship game) and to give it everything we had. Just lay everything on the line and that’s what we did.”
The Lady Jackets missed their last seven shots of the game and missed four of six free throws in the last 2:40 of play. They shot 20 percent (5 of 25) in the second half and missed all eight of their 3-point attempts.
“We played tough and Walker did too. It was a physical game,” Zito said of the game that had 35 fouls called. “As a coach we wish we had this call or that call in different situations, but in the end, I don’t think any of that effected the game. It’s on us. We had turnovers, we didn’t make free throws down the stretch. You control what you can control and next time we’ll try and do a better job at it.”
Everything Denham Springs touched in the first quarter turned to gold.
Behind the 3-point shooting of Howell, who made two of her three 3-pointers in the first three minutes of play, the Lady Jackets led 8-0 and finished the quarter on a 9-0 spurt for a commanding 21-4 advantage.
“When you’re down that early you can sit back and be defeated, but they decided they were going to play,” Jones said. “They decided to keep fighting. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”
Walker, which was 2 of 12 from the field and wound up shooting 30 percent (16 of 54) overall, turned to its full-court pressure in order to make up the deficit, forcing Denham Springs into 12 second-quarter turnovers and 21 overall.
The Lady Jackets still led 26-13 with 5:15 showing on Horne’s driving layup, but a free throw from Garner tipped off the Lady Cats best minutes of the first half and Ellis followed with a 3-pointer to fuel a run that reached 14-4 by the end of the half.
Walker trailed 30-27 at the break when they reeled off six straight points off three consecutive turnovers which Harold, who totaled 14 points, and Young combined to score in the last 42 seconds of play.
“Just like we deserved a lot of credit in the parish tournament for how well we played, I think they deserve some credit,” Zito said of Walker. “Down 21-4, keeping their emotions in check in this environment. As much as it’s a rival, it’s hats off to them. They deserve it and hopefully next time we’ll deserve it.”
It took five minutes of play in the third quarter when Harold tied the game for the only time (35-35) with a pair of free throws. Horne answered with a pair of free throws and a driving layup, getting between two defenders, for only her team’s second field goal of the quarter.
“We didn’t do what we practiced coming out,” Young said. “We had to remember what we practiced and that was to apply pressure and that’s what helped us come back.”