February 25, 2014 2:31:38 PM
It was fitting the Sebastopol High School girls basketball team's bench players mobbed coach Cassy Madden after their game Monday night.
Without those individuals, none of the Bobcats would have had a reason to celebrate.
Thanks to the key performances from the reserves, Sebastopol survived West Lowndes 49-44 in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A South State tournament playoff game. The Bobcats (19-6) never trailed, but they also never had a comfortable lead in a loud and hostile road environment.
"We stayed with it no matter who was on the floor and everybody contributed tonight," Madden said. "Everybody deserved to be in that group hug because the sense of accomplishment was felt by each of them or at least should've been.
Sebastopol's guards set the pace, as they made shots to help the visitors build a 16-8 lead after eight minutes. Perimeter starters Alexis Burke and Baylee Green accounted for 15 of the team's 29 first-half points, but foul trouble forced them to sit next to Madden for the final three minutes of the half.
The Bobcats' suffocating 2-3 zone defense and the overall toughness of their backup forwards guarding West Lowndes leading scorer LaQuesha Clemons resulted in a 29-17 halftime lead. Clemons, who averaged 17.3 points per game, was frustrated by the lack of open looks and post touches in the zone.
"We had our two bigs double team (Clemons) all night so she never got free, and I just kept interchanging the rotation of bigs we had on her all night," Madden said. "I'm so proud of those girls because without their effort in a tough role that doesn't get a lot of credit, we don't win."
West Lowndes (9-9) used a full-court pressure that forced turnover to trigger a 15-3 run to thanks to start the third quarter.
"I think our girls fought hard and brought that level of energy in the second half but couldn't get the lead," West Lowndes coach Anthony King said. "If we could've ever gotten the lead, I felt like the entire momentum of the game would've changed immediately."
With 1 minute, 42 seconds left in the third quarter, Clemons made a steal and converted a layup and free throw to cut the deficit to two points, its lowest since the opening tip.
When Sebastopol broke the press, King switched his defense to a box-and-1 to try to stop Burke. The switch limited Burke to two points in the second half, but it also allowed center Holly Summers to score 11 points in the second half. Summers' wide-open layup off a press break with 90 seconds left iced the victory.
Madden was forced to go with backup guards in the second half due to foul trouble as turnovers hampered the Bobcats' effort to put the game away. The frustration with the full-court press had Madden out of the coaching box repeatedly near half court in an attempt to help her team.
"In this type of environment, I just wanted my girls to survive the onslaught," Madden said. "I felt like if we could survive -- and we did -- we would be fine in the end to put it away."
West Lowndes had several chances to tie and or take the lead in the fourth quarter, but it missed shots in the lane and critical free throws. After each one, the home crowd let out a collective groan. Sebastopol capitalized and continued to drain the clock.
"My bench had nine points, several key rebounds, and played exceptional defense all night," Madden said. "Coming in to West Lowndes was a tough place, and I can't tell you the excitement I just left in my locker room with that group of girls."
Despite the loss, West Lowndes gained confidence from a return to the playoffs after several losing seasons.
"When we were playing our best basketball, we had a eight-game winning streak, but the final eight games or so we just didn't play our best, and that's the frustrating part of the end here," King said. "They can leave this gym, though, knowing they earned a home playoff game, and that hasn't happened here since I've been here."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.