With Greensboro’s top two players on the bench and the outcome still in doubt, someone needed to rally the Trinity girls.
Claire Wilder was up to the task.
The 5-foot-4 junior calmly drilled a 3-pointer with four minutes left to trigger a 7-0 run that put the Wildcats one step closer to Birmingham with a 55-47 win over the Raiders in Alabama State’s Acadome on Thursday afternoon.
“She was straight-faced when she made it because Claire has confidence,” Trinity point guard Marley Sport said, “but it was huge. There comes a point when they get that next point, and all of a sudden, the difference looks way greater than it was. I think that helped bring them down and gave us a boost.”
Trinity had struggled in the second quarter with the inside threat of center Elexis Evans and the outside threat of all-state wing Malesha Williams. But Evans went to the bench late in the third quarter after picking up her fourth personal foul, and Williams left the floor a minute into the fourth period with leg cramps.
“It was sad for them, but it was huge for us, for them not to be in the game,” said Janie Hampton, who led Trinity with 24 points and five steals. “Once they were out, we could do what we do and get past them.”
Trinity, leading 42-41, got a huge boost from Wilder’s 3-pointer. By the time the Greensboro pair took the floor, the Wildcats were firmly in control.
“When she hit that shot, I knew it was going to be hard for them (to rally) with No. 5 having a leg cramp,” Trinity coach Blake Smith said. “It was going to be hard for her to take the game over. And I figured that was the only way they were going to get back in it.”
The Wildcats used the same formula in the first quarter, rallying from a 10-8 deficit with a 13-1 run, then limited Evans’ touches and forced six Greensboro turnovers in a three-minute span.
In the second quarter, everything changed. Williams took command of the game, scoring 12 of her 28 points, while on defense, the Raiders held Trinity to one field goal in the quarter.
“That’s one of the reasons we play fast,” Smith said. “In my opinion, it’s easier to get an open shot early. If you get it down there and get an open shot, take it, because we’re not big. Teams can smother us sometimes, and it’s hard to get clean, open looks. So when we get tired, you see it on the offensive end because we don’t get stops, so we don’t run out. When No. 5 started scoring, we weren’t able to push the ball so we didn’t get any early shots.”
And with Evans in the middle, the Wildcats would often get just one shot.
“It was very frustrating,” Hampton said. “I think we all kind of got down in the second quarter when things weren’t going our way. But we had a timeout and Coach was like, ‘We’re still winning.'”
It didn’t last. Greensboro rallied to take a 28-24 lead at the half and held that lead until Trinity made a 9-1 run late in the third quarter to take a brief two-point lead.
Despite the bleak outlook in the second period, Smith said he believed the original game plan would still work.
“We knew they had two real good players, but we thought we had five good players,” Smith said. “We just hoped they’d wear down and get in foul trouble. And both of those things happened.
“The thing about these girls is simplicity works a lot better. Doing what they know to do. And if we try to change that too much, it gets a little rough for them. Once it sped up and No. 5 started hurting us, we could take a little pressure off, but once I felt like the girls were ready to go, we ratcheted it back up.”
Williams had 28 points, 11 rebounds and four steals for Greensboro (21-8), but just two in the final three minutes. Evans added 11 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots.
Wilder and Leeanne Phillips each had 12 points for Trinity (19-8), which will play eight-time defending regional champion Midfield at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“We’re a lot the same style,” Smith said. “They’ve got three really good guards but, you know, we’ve got three really good guards, so I look forward to seeing what happens when we play them.”
Greene Co. 47
Charles Thomas took a pay cut because of the Midfield High tradition.
The first-year coach of the Patriots understands the job has pressure but it also has its perks.
“The expectations are very, very high,” Thomas said. “We don’t have an All-American on the team. We’re very young. I only have three seniors on the team. But when I took the job, I told the girls, ‘It’s championship or bust for me.’ “
Midfield (20-10) defeated Greene County 52-47 in a game that was surprisingly close for three quarters, surprising because Greene County (9-15) has struggled against good teams this year, and Midfield has a lot of tradition on its side.
The Patriots won the South Regional as a Class 3A team in 2005 and 2006 and as a Class 4A team for the next six years in the Central Regional.
Midfield won state championships for four of those six years, beginning in 2007.
Of course, with the higher expectations comes the higher pressure.
“I sensed a lot of nervousness on our part,” Thomas said. “A lot of careless turnovers. We usually don’t turn the ball over that much (20 times) in games. I didn’t think they could handle the ball well. I thought they did a great job of passing the basketball and that put our defense in (bad) positions.”
For the seventh consecutive year, the Patriots will be in the Central Regional finals, facing Trinity on Saturday. They hope the results are similar.
“It means a lot because I don’t think a lot of people gave us an opportunity to be in situation we’re in now,” Thomas said. “The girls are really enjoying the moment. We didn’t play one of our better games today, but to have this opportunity, they’re really seizing the moment.”