LORENA — So that’s why these teams needed a tiebreaker.
The La Vega and China Spring girls split their season series and finished with identical 9-3 records in District 17-4A play. That forced Friday’s tiebreaker game for playoff seeding, and fittingly the Lady Cougars and Lady Pirates again fought molar and cuticle, extending all the way into an overtime period.
In the end, La Vega’s junior post Ta’Naiya Norwood proved too tough to tangle with in the post, as she scored 31 points to fuel her team’s 60-55 overtime win over China Spring.
La Vega coach Jeff Jefferson was proud of the way his team stuck to the game plan. A very simple game plan at that — get the ball to Norwood, preferably as deep in the post as possible.
The Super Centex post had scored 33 points in the teams’ first meeting this year, a 59-52 home win for the Lady Pirates. But China Spring held her in check the second time around, and the Lady Cougars took the rematch, 59-44, in China Spring.
But Norwood would not be denied in the third installment, as she outscored China Spring by herself in overtime. Norwood put up 10 points in the extra period, including an off-balance power move over a pair of defenders while drawing a foul.
“I think we had a big advantage inside, and I just kept saying, ‘Go to the water, go to the well as much as you can,’” Jefferson said. “I had a couple of senior guards who made some good decisions on getting the ball into her. I think once she got into that zone, she was ready to go. The first meeting she hit 33 points. But the second game, we lost, she didn’t score very much. So I told them, ‘Let’s go back and do what was successful.’”
Still, China Spring (18-11) had its chances to take down the Lady Pirates, who are seeking their fourth straight trip to the state tournament this year. But turnovers and a couple of misses on open looks in the last minute of the game stunted China Spring’s hopes.
“I’m just disappointed. We made our own mistakes, and at crucial times,” China Spring coach Kristi Mize said. “It just hurt us. Norwood is an amazing athlete and we had a hard time holding her, but we kind of did. We mixed some things up a little bit. But I’m proud of my kids. We were — what? — 11, 12 (points) down. I’m proud of them fighting back like they did. But you’ve got to take care of business.”
In the first half, the teams swapped jabs back and forth. Norwood and China Spring’s Gabrielle Cleveland waged a feisty battle in the post, with each player coming up with key buckets at various times. La Vega ended up taking a 22-20 lead into the halftime break after Tierney Sawyers banked in a 3-pointer with time winding down, followed by the Lady Cougars’ Summer Emblem falling short on a deep fling at the buzzer.
Norwood and fellow upperclassman Haley Howard heated up in the third quarter, while China Spring’s attempts descended into ice-cold temperatures. La Vega scored the first seven points of the third quarter, and built a 10-point lead at several junctures.
“I thought we played hard in the end,” Jefferson said. “When (Shekenia) Green fouled out, I said, ‘Oh my.’ But we hung in there. Haley Howard stepped up, bad leg and all, and was a warrior tonight.”
China Spring wasn’t about to let La Vega run away with it, though. The Lady Cougars flowed back into the game with the force of a Waco Dam water leak, and tied the score at 42 on a pair of Abbie Snyder free throws with 3:19 left in regulation.
The Lady Cougars trailed 48-47 with 11.8 seconds left when they regained possession of the ball after an errant La Vega pass. Emblem missed a runner after a dribble handoff, Cleveland rebounded and missed, then rebounded again and drew a foul with 3.3 seconds left. The 5-foot-9 junior knocked down one of her two attempts to tie the game again and send it to overtime.
Cleveland finished with 19 points to top China Spring, and managed to stay in the game with four fouls for a long stretch before eventually fouling out late in overtime.
“She played with (the fouls),” Mize said. “She’s just an amazing kid. She’s valedictorian right now, an amazing, amazing artist, and just phenomenal, hard-working, just gut-wrenching in everything. She does that in practice. She and Emblem look like that in practice.”
Alex Perkins chipped in 14 points for China Spring, while Howard complemented Norwood’s big night for La Vega, scoring eight points.
Matchups matter in the playoffs, hence the reason for the game. As the winner, La Vega claims the No. 2 seed from 17-4A and will face 18-4A’s third-seeded Fairfield at 6 p.m. Monday in Bremond.
China Spring takes the No. 3 seed and will draw Mexia in bi-district play, at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Groesbeck.
“I just think our kids are going to respond,” China Spring’s Mize said. “They’re tired of losing already, and it’s only been two (in a row). So they’re going to respond, get back to work and go take care of Mexia. Go back and start over.”