By BEN JOHNSON
Tahlequah has had every reason to fold this season.
Starting guard Desiree Phipps went down with a season-ending knee injury in December. Starting center Jhonett Cookson transferred to another school in January. Starting shooting guard Randee O’Donnell went down with an ankle injury three days ago.
The Lady Tigers could have waived the white flag. No one would have thought any less of them.
Yet, all that has brought the Lady Tigers closer together. That’s what made Saturday so satisfying for Class 5A No. 7 Tahlequah.
Forging on as they’ve done all year, the Lady Tigers captured a Class 5A regional tournament championship with a 68-63 victory over 5A No. 18 Chickasha. It’s Tahlequah first regional crown since 2001.
“I’m really proud of the girls; they came together,” Tahlequah coach Chad Walker said. “They were really feeding off of that and feeding off all the naysayers. I’m proud of them.”
Instead of just one player filling O’Donnell’s shoes, nearly every Tahlequah player that stepped on the floor elevated their games. None more than Marisa Girdner.
The 5-foot-5 junior guard finished with 19 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor and a 6-of-11 effort at the free-throw line.
“They had a hard time guarding her,” Walker said of Girdner.
Chickasha coach Christy Edelen came away very impressed by Girdner.
“(Tahlequah) has quickness and you have to keep (Girdner) in front of you,” Edelen said. “I was afraid if we didn’t go and get her, they’d just pull the ball out and stall it in the third quarter.”
Girdner did most of her damage in the second half after being tagged with her second foul at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. From that point on, she became a spectator until halftime.
“I was just really upset with myself because I got in foul trouble,” said Girdner, who also added five assists and four rebounds to her stat line. “And even before the game, (Walker) told me, ‘you can’t be in foul trouble.’
“I just felt like I had to make up for the time (that I missed) in the first half.”
She made good on that effort.
It was Girdner, in fact, who gave Tahlequah its biggest lead of the game in the fourth quarter. Following a missed 3-pointer by Alissa Hadley, Chickasha’s Taylor Sylvester rebounded the ball only to have Girdner rip it away. Girdner took a few strides toward the basket, put up a shot and made it while being fouled by Sylvester.
That put Tahlequah up 56-41 with 6:31 to play.
Chickasha (12-12) would cut Tahlequah’s lead to 10 less than a minute later, and that’s when Hadley came up her patent 3-pointer from the corner, which bumped the Lady Tigers’ lead back up to 13 (59-46).
“We were shooting at the beginning and I wasn’t hitting and that was going through my mind,” said Hadley, who finished with six points. “Then Marisa drove and passed to me, and I didn’t think much about it. It’s just kind of like a fourth-quarter thing: just block everything out and know that you’ll have to hit the shot.”
After letting an 11-point lead dwindle to three (31-28) at halftime, Tahlequah came out and struck the first blow in the third period. Forward Casey Beaston — sporting a black right eye after taking a hit against Coweta on Thursday night — caught the ball at the top of the key and hoisted up a 3-pointer, which banked in to give the Lady Tigers a 34-28 edge.
“Honestly, bank shots are never impressive to me,” said Beaston, who had 13 points on 5 of 10 shooting. “But they’re points and they help the team.”
Beaston’s banked-in 3-pointer was sign of good fortune to come for Tahlequah.
“In practice, Casey is always trying to be Casey, the shooter,” said Girdner, whose team made 44.4 percent (24 of 54) of its shots from the floor. “I was glad she finally made one in a game. It just gave everyone confidence, and it was kind of that turning point that [made it feel] like we were going to win this.”
For Chickasha, Dominique Golightly led the way with 19 points — 15 of which came from the free-throw line. Kialey Clift had 16 points — 12 in the second half — and Alex Stewart and Sierra Hamilton both tossed in 10 points.
“We haven’t been in this position before, and I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but we missed some free throws and I don’t know if that shook us up early,” said Edelen, whose team shot 17 of 40 from the field. “But, the girls really fought and never quit. I was proud of them for that.”
Also eroding Chickasha’s confidence early on was the play of Tahlequah’s Whitney Wright and Lindsay Wade. Wright scored eight of her 11 points in the first quarter to give the Lady Tigers an early shot in the arm.
“Whitney Wright got the flu,” Walker said, “and played a great game.”
Wright, though, went cold in the second quarter, and that’s when Wade took over with Girdner on the bench. Wade, a 5-foot-6 freshman, scored seven points in the second quarter, 12 in the first half and 15 overall for the game.
“I definitely knew that we all had to step up,” Wade said. “...But I was ready to do that.”
Girdner was unsure of how Wright and Wade would respond with her on the bench, but she was pleasantly surprised by the results.
“I was afraid Lindsay and Whitney might freak out because they usually have me or Randee in the game,” Girdner said. “And with neither of us in there, I thought Lindsay, as a freshman, did really well. She held her composure, and Whitney did just as well.”
Both teams now advance to the area tournament that will be played in the Tulsa area. Sites and game times have not yet been determined.
Chickasha’s area consolation opponent will be Edison, while Tahlequah will take on Memorial — who beat Edison on Saturday — for a spot in the Class 5A state tournament.
“Three wins [in the playoffs] is what it takes,” Walker said of getting to the state tournament. “We’ll see what we can do.”
Tahlequah 68, Chickasha 63
Chick 15 13 10 25 -- 63
Tah 22 9 19 18 -- 68
Chickasha (12-12): Dominique Golightly 19, Kialey Clift 16, Alex Stewart 10, Sierra Hamilton 10, Gore 6, Ramos 2.
Tahlequah (16-9): Marisa Girdner 19, Lindsay Wade 15, Casey Beaston 13, Whitney Wright 11, Hadley 6, Carnes 2, Clark 2.
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