LaRhonda O'Neal, nicknamed 'mini', came up huge when the Tigerettes were in desperate straits Tuesday night at Loretto, hitting a jump shot with 17.5 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime and then, with a hand in her face, O'Neal buried a three-pointer from deep in the corner with the Tigerettes trailing by one point with just three and a half ticks left in overtime, saving the perfect season with the 67-65 win and at the same time, icing the District 10-AA regular season title.
MCHS head Coach Boyd West is confident in the Tigerettes ability to hit big shots at big times and said, "I felt pretty good when 'mini' had the ball. I thought she was going to try to dump it to Lauren (March), but they sagged in on Lauren and LaRhonda just nailed it. I feel good about all of our shooters. They have all proven to me that they can perform and hit outside shots when the pressure is on."
The top ranked Tigerettes moved to 24-0 on the season with two games left, inching tantalizingly closer to their first perfect regular season in 36 years.
West, still unbeaten as a head coach, said, "When we drove into Loretto, we knew it was going to be a ballgame. When you go on the road you know you are going to get every team's best effort. You have to come into every ballgame ready to play and we did not take Loretto lightly. I told them after the game that I was proud of what they had accomplished so far this season. The players have a lot of pressure on them; there is a lot of pressure on me, and a lot of pressure on the program."
West added, "These girls all know the history and they want to etch their names in the history book."
The Tigerette/Lady Mustang rivalry goes back decades, but may be over unless they meet again in the post-season with the new TSSAA re-classification plan to be implemented next season. Fairview will replace Loretto in the new District 12-AA.
The Tigerettes came off the bus looking like a team that was not taking the Lady Mustangs lightly at all, roaring out to a 9-0 lead before Loretto finally scored, four minutes into the contest. NeNe McLean did the first quarter damage for Marshall County, scoring eight of the Tigerettes' 16 points in the period, leading the girls from Lewisburg to a ten-point 16-6 spread after one.
On Loretto's first possession of the second quarter, Andraya Tears stole the ball in the low post and kicked it out to McLean, who found Artavia Bryant on the left wing. Bryant drained the first of her five treys in the ballgame, giving MCHS a 19-6 lead.
Marshall County would lead by as much as 16 points in the period before Loretto came back late, getting back to the same ten-point deficit they began the quarter in, trailing 31-21 at the half.
Bryant was at it to begin quarter number two, raining down another three-pointer to stretch the lead to 34-21. The teams traded baskets and then the Lady Mustangs reared up and stormed back into the ballgame with a 13-0 run to trail by two-points at 36-34 with just under two minutes to play in the period.
O'Neal broke the scoring drought with a pull-up jumper before Abby Laws, who finished with 21 points, played beat the buzzer and won with a long three, cutting the deficit to just a single point at 37-36, going into the final eight minutes.
Lauren March and Jakerra Simmons scored for Lewisburg, building the lead back to five before Elizabeth Hemmen was fouled attempting a three-pointer. Hemmen sank all three of the foul shots, but Bryant was smoking hot, raining down another three-pointer and the fourth quarter battle was on.
Loretto came all the back this time as the home crowd roared on Laws, who scored five straight for the Lady Mustangs, tying the game at 45 with 6:14 to play.
After a Tigerette miss, Becca Curtis got into the long ball show, hitting a three from the corner, giving the Lady Mustangs their first lead of the night at 48-45.
Mini" was mighty at this juncture, draining a three-pointer to re-tie the game, and forcing a Loretto timeout with 4:29 left. After the T.O., O'Neal stole the rock and went the distance, giving the Tigerettes a two-point lead.
MCHS would continue to lead until the 2:37 mark when Hemmen stole the ball and scored, giving the home team a 54-53 lead.
Simmons scored in the low post, giving the Tigerettes a one-point lead, but lo and behold Laws was there again, burying a three from the top of the key, giving Loretto a 59-57 lead with under a minute to play.
Both squads missed shots on their next possessions and Marshall County got the ball back with 30.1 left on the clock.
The Tigerettes pushed the ball up and found O'Neal in the corner, who shoulder faked before moving in for the game tying jumper with 17.5 seconds left.
Loretto could not score and time ran out in regulation, sending the game into overtime, tied at 59.
MCHS won the overtime tip and Bryant was fouled, sending her to the line where she made one of two. After a Loretto miss, March hit two free throws, giving the Tigerettes a 62-59 lead with 2:47 left and forcing a Loretto timeout.
Laws scored for Loretto and then MCHS let them back in the game with March going a surprising 0-4 from the line. Loretto had the ball with under a minute to play and Heather Dunkin was fouled. Dunkin calmly sank both charity shots, giving Loretto a 63-62 lead.
March made up for her poor foul shooting by making a strong move in the low post for a score with 38.6 seconds left. Loretto called time again and set up an out of bounds play that worked to perfection as Curtis got free and laid it in off the glass, giving Loretto a 65-64 lead.
McLean brought the ball up and swung it around before dishing to O'Neal in the corner. O'Neal looked into March in the post, but Loretto had March surrounded. O'Neal rose up and spun the ball through the net, giving the Tigerettes a 67-65 lead with 3.5 seconds left.
Loretto called timeout and Boyd talked about the defensive strategy he laid out in the timeout huddle. "Our goal then was to keep the ball in front of us and not allow an easy two. We thought we had a good shot at keeping the ball in the center and not giving up an easy lay-up."
Loretto threw the ball in up the left flank and then another quick pass to Curtis, setting up the desperation bomb that clanked off the front of the rim and fell off, ending the battle.
Bryant was the Tigerettes' high scorer with 20 points, O'Neal finished with 14, Simmons netted 12, March scored 11, and McLean had 10 points.
The Tigerettes (24-0, 12-0) will try to keep perfection intact Friday night at home in a senior night game versus East Hickman (6-16, 2-9).