JACKSON — The regular season can often show you who’s talented, but the postseason will quickly weed out the ones who are unprepared. If you practice the little things, they may just end up making the biggest difference of them all.
With about 1:30 left in the fourth quarter of the eventual 52-43 Sectional Championship win on Thursday night, the Athens Lady Bulldogs found themselves with a 3-point lead in a hostile road environment in the midst of an ultra-physical contest against Jackson.
Phil Koska, the head coach of Athens, and plenty of others in the gym realized what was about to happen at that time. With all the effort and shots made throughout the night, it was going to come down to arguably one of the easier shots out there.
If Athens was going to hold on and pull out the victory, it was going to come down to free throws.
So often the under appreciated make-or-break stat in basketball, the importance of hitting free throws, especially in such a pressure-packed moment, is invaluable.
With the Ironladies now forced into fouls at the end of the night, Athens was objectively perfect. Over that span a mixture of three different girls led by Fern Sigman, who went 4-4 from the line, combined for an 8-8 mark from the charity stripe. Silencing the home crowd in the process and soon hearing the final buzzer, they were able to celebrate a Sectional Championship.
“I was super proud of them,” Koska said, praising his team’s effort late at the line. “We worked on it all week, just shooting foul shots and working on every possible situation we could be in. We knew we had a young group and we needed them to focus on it.”
It was a long, arduous journey to get to that point though, and took a whole lot of mental fortitude. It was so difficult that the Lady Bulldogs had to deal with a deficit before even stepping on to the court.
Athens was assessed an administrative technical foul before the game started for not having their scorebook ready in time, Jackson proceeded to nail both free throws and had a 2-0 lead before the opening tip.
Off the back of a strong defensive quarter from the Lady Bulldogs, Athens was able to claw back pretty easily in the first frame. They took their first lead of the night off a pair of free throws from Emily Zuber, then Quinn Banks quickly extended that with a three-pointer. By the end of the frame Athens had built a four-point advantage.
That lead didn’t last long though as a quick run from Jackson to start the second tied things up again. The Ironladies took a lead soon after but a layup from Olivia Smart followed by another three-pointer from Banks stole the lead once again for the Lady Bulldogs. Ella Chapman extended the lead to five with a floater driving into the lane late in the half. One more bucket from Jackson and Athens found themselves up 20-17 going into the halftime break.
They proceeded to make a statement coming out of the locker room en route to an almost dominated third quarter despite it becoming a physical game and having to deal with adversity.
Smart got festivities started with a jumper and Zuber followed that up with a layup of her own to quickly extend the lead to seven. Asa Holcombe hit a pair of free throws while another Zuber bucket and a Banks three-pointer ballooned the lead up to double-digits.
The momentum seemingly flipped instantly though. Coming up with clutch buckets and dominating the boards for nearly the entire game, Emily Zuber was forced out of the game in the third quarter after picking up her fourth foul.
“Emily played excellent… we had a little discussion with her being a senior that we reminded her that this could be her last night. She needed to be a team leader and I thought she showed it very well. She handled herself pretty well, especially being fouled out kind of early.”
That must’ve sparked something out of Jackson because they were able to then make a run and cut heavily into the lead. The Ironladies went on a 9-3 run to end the third, putting them in striking distance heading into the fourth with a raucous crowd behind them.
The fourth quarter was a unique one. Neither team could score a single point during the first few minutes of the final frame. The accumulated fouls though started to seriously hurt Athens. They repeatedly sent Jackson players to the line, leading to the Lady Bulldogs’ lead being cut down to as little as one point.
Not to mention, Zuber picked up her fifth foul just before that and was shuffled to the bench after fouling out. Even though her night was cut short, Zuber showed out with nine crucial points, 11 rebounds and a steal.
Ella Chapman made arguably one of the bigger buckets in the game when a layup extended the lead back to three. Banks then ripped off her fourth three-pointer with just under three minutes left, giving Athens a five-point lead at the time.
“She is a really good spot up shooter and everybody looks at her as a post so they have a tendency to leave her open. We take advantage of it when we can.” Koska said of Banks, who finished with a team-high 14 points on 4-8 shooting from deep.
The lead quickly got cut down to three again but an incredibly impressive pass from Holcombe on the baseline to a cutting Smart gave them a little more breathing room. Although she had a slow night shooting, it didn’t stop the sophomore from being incredibly vital everywhere else, picking up 10 rebounds, eight assists, six steals and three blocks.
Jackson just wouldn’t stop fighting as they cut the lead to three once again, but that’s when it became free throw time, and we know how that ended.
“We mentally tried to prepare them all week for it,” Koska said about getting his team ready to be in such a pressure-filled environment and deal with adversity. “We knew that we we’re going to have to overcome the adversity of the game.”
The Sectional Championship was the first one for the Lady Bulldogs since 2014-15.
Athens will next suit up for the District tournament against Sheridan on Monday at Piketon High School with tip-off set for 8 p.m.
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