The first official day of winter arrives on Thursday. But it seemed to show up early at the Connally High School gym on Tuesday night.
Frosty shooting plagued both teams, but the 23rd-ranked Lorena Lady Leopards made just enough plays down the stretch to grind out a 35-32 road win over 14th-ranked Connally in District 17-4A action.
“There’s no question, we executed a few things. We didn’t execute very much right all night,” Lorena coach Rodney Gee said. “And the credit really goes to Connally. Connally was speeding us up, trying to make us feel uncomfortable tonight, and we kind of allowed that to happen. They forced that to happen. But we made some plays at the end.”
From the jump, the basket appeared to have a lid on it. Both teams struggled on the offensive end, though part of that could be credited to feisty defense that limited shots and created bushels of turnovers.
Connally (16-3 overall, 1-1 in district) actually entered the night leading the state in 3-point bombs, according to MaxPreps statistical leaders. But Lorena (9-4, 2-1) extended its defense right into the laps of the Lady Cadet shooters, slamming down the window of space.
“We were off, and they had a lot to do with it,” said Connally coach Taylor Sims. “Give (Rodney) Gee credit, he’s a great coach. They weren’t going to let us set up and shoot threes. Right now we’re leading the state in 3-pointers, and he was going to make sure we didn’t get those off tonight. They did a good job of it.
“We got a few there at the end to kind of pull it close, but hat’s off to Lorena, they did what they had to to limit our shooting.”
The teams combined for only 12 points in the first quarter, and they didn’t exactly start percolating in the second quarter, either. Even open layups rolled in and out or bounced off the rim harmlessly. Lorena took a 16-9 lead into the halftime break.
Lorena pushed the gap to 18-11 early in the third quarter when Bailey Burbidge got loose on a scoop to the hoop. Then Connally cranked up the defensive heat on the Lady Leopard ballhandlers, and it helped the Lady Cadets get back into the game.
Connally broke off a 9-1 run, fueled by its turnover-inducing pressure and a suddenly more friendly basket. Heaven-Lang Tucker, who led all scorers with 13 points, executed a sweet drop step in the post to wiggle past her defender and score inside, and then she gave Connally the lead at the 2:19 mark of the quarter when she buried a 3-pointer, pushing the count to 20-19.
“I think our defense kept us in it,” Sims said. “We know we’re quick and athletic and we can guard pretty well. Like I told them, ‘If you’ll get right up on them and play hard, you’ll have a chance.’ Our athleticism kind of helped us out. I never thought we would struggle that bad, shooting at home. But it happens. You have off nights. But I think our defense, even toward the end, kept it close and gave us a chance.”
True enough, though Lorena benefited from the heady point guard play of Alana Armstrong. Twice in the fourth quarter, the senior weaved through traffic before setting up open teammates for shots – once to Damiana Longo for a pure jumper and later Armstrong dished a bounce pass to Jamyn Franklin for the bucket.
Connally still had a chance late. Keyonna Lane split a pair of free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining to cut Lorena’s lead to 35-32. The Lady Cadets harassed Lorena with trapping defense in the backcourt, and nearly came up with a steal with five seconds to go, but the ball skipped through the hands of the Connally defender, and the Lady Leopards were able to run off the final seconds before Connally could foul to stop the clock.
“I say it every year. It’s just a brutal district,” Lorena’s Gee said. “You’ve got to be ready to play every single night. Everybody is well-coached, everybody gets after it, the kids know each other, and it’s a battle. I told our kids earlier, ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to find a way to win.’ And I thought that’s what we did tonight. We didn’t play great – credit to Connally on that – but we found a way to get a win on the road. That’s big.”
Franklin hit for 12 points to top Lorena, while savvy senior forward Michelle Runyan contributed 10. Lang-Tucker was the only Lady Cadet to hit double-digit scoring, though Lane scored nine. Connally’s normally hot-shooting sophomore point guard Miannah Little, who produced 28 points and eight assists in Connally’s 83-56 district-opening win over Hillsboro last Friday, was limited to just seven points on this night. Several times she shook her head in frustration after missing open looks.
Lorena’s win also prevented Sims from achieving his 100th win in his fifth season at Connally. Nevertheless, his 99 victories are the most of any girls basketball coach in program history.
Both teams will take a Christmas break before resuming action at Midway’s M.T. Rice Holiday Tournament, beginning Dec. 28.