For almost three quarters of his team’s opening-round showdown with Class A No. 1 Cyril at the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic, Bethel coach Jerry Johnson was having a 52-week flashback.
Last year, Johnson’s Lady Wildcats entered the Mid-America as one of the pre-tournament favorites but suffered a four-point loss to another Class A No. 1 — Chattanooga — and had to settle for the consolation title while Chatty went on to the championship game.
Tuesday afternoon, Johnson watched his club struggle to contain Cyril center Shelbi Skaggs until late in the third quarter; down the stretch, though, the Lady Wildcats solved the Skaggs puzzle and remained unbeaten with a tough 43-38 victory. With the win, Bethel (No. 2 in Class 3A) advanced to another marquee matchup — this time with Class 4A No. 1 and tournament top seed Cache — in tonight’s second semifinal at 8 p.m.
Cyril dropped into the loser’s bracket and will face Wellston — an 85-37 loser to Cache in Monday’s nightcap — for the right to advance to Saturday’s consolation championship.
“At halftime, I told my girls that I didn’t come here to NOT show up in our first game again,” Bethel coach Jerry Johnson said. “In most of the first-round games at the Mid-America, teams aren’t going to be as sharp as usual. We were off 16 days, and I you’re not going to be as sharp as normal after that long — I don’t care how you practice over that period.”
Skaggs, a six-foot senior, spent the first half converting pinpoint passes from her teammates into five field goals (in nine shots) and 14 of Cyril’s 20 points before intermission. But Bethel senior Sami Martin dropped down to help clog up the passing lanes, Skaggs had one point and no shots over the final 10:25, and the Lady Wildcats finished the game on a 17-8 run to grab the win.
“(Cyril coach Jeff Fletcher) does as good a job of high-low as I’ve seen,” Johnson said. “We did a much better job of getting backside help in the second half.”
Cyril, which entered the week with a tournament-high nine straight wins to open the season, beat Bethel’s full-court pressure and took a 30-26 lead when junior Brigitte Thompson was fouled on a layup in transition and completed the three-point play with 2:58 left in the third quarter.
But Bethel star Taylor Cooper — an all-tournament selection at the 2009 Mid-America — hustled to grab a long rebound of a missed 3-pointer by teammate Kylee Tatum and, after being fouled a few seconds later, converted two free throws to start a 9-3 spurt over the final 2:36 of the period.
Fletcher said the game turned when his senior point guard, Shelbie Laughlin, picked up her fourth foul with 3:32 left in the third quarter.
“We played well in the first half,” Fletcher noted. “The big deal for us was losing our point guard. As long as (Laughlin) is in the game, we can handle pressure.”
McKenzie Cooper’s pull-up jumper (following the first of two straight Cyril turnovers) less than two minutes after Laughlin went to the bench with her fourth personal tied the score for the first time since the opening minute of the game. Eight seconds later, Martin coverted another Bethel takeaway into a 3-pointer off an assist from McKenzie Cooper to put the Lady Wildcats up 33-30.
Laughlin returned and drained a 3-pointer of her own with 47 seconds remaining in the quarter to tie the game again, but Martin drove the lane and hit a 10-footer with six seconds left to send Bethel (5-0) to the fourth quarter with a 35-33 lead.
Another Laughlin jumper just 17 seconds into the final period tied the game for the last time, but the Lady Pirates managed just one Skaggs free throw over the next five minutes. Bethel took the lead for good on a pair of McKenzie Cooper free throws (following a steal by Tatum) with 5:01 to play. Taylor Cooper got an assist on Tatum’s 3-pointer from the corner 44 seconds later and added a mid-air lay-in of an offensive rebound at the 2:58 mark to give the Lady Wildcats their biggest lead of the game at 42-36.
Bethel led 11-7 after one quarter, but the Lady Wildcats were 0-for-5 from the field and turned the ball over four times (on consecutive possessions) in the first 4:48 of the second.
By the time Shalynn Flanagan got the first Bethel basket of the period at the 3:12 mark, Cyril had built a 16-13 lead. Skaggs capped that spurt with a layup off a beautiful lob from Brooke Horn to cap a three-shot possession with 3:47 left in the half, then she scored the Lady Pirates’ final four points before intermission on a pair of free throws at the 2:53 mark and a layup off another nice assist — this one from Emily Horn — 48 seconds later to offset a driving left-handed layup by Martin and send Cyril to the locker room with a 20-17 lead.
Skaggs finished with a game-high 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting, but she was just 2-for-6 in the second half. Although Laughlin added seven points, no other Cyril player had more than four in the loss.
Taylor Cooper took just eight shots all night but hit four and led Bethel with 11 points and eight rebounds. Martin added nine points, Tatum — who came off the bench for the first time all season — hit two of the Lady Wildcats’ three 3-pointers and finished with eight points, and McKenzie Cooper — Bethel’s freshman point guard — had seven points in just 10 minutes of action while trying to play through a sprained ankle.