STONEWALL — Christie Jennings took her fourth-ranked Stonewall Lady Longhorns to East Central University’s Kerr Activities Center Monday afternoon for a shootaround, a pep talk from her high school coach (Byng athletic director Bruce Plunk) and a question-and-answer session to convince her young squad that, although reaching the Class A State Tournament is a trememdous accomplishment, playing in “The Big House” is really no big deal.

Jennings’ plan was to get her young team — which will open state tournament play against third-ranked Crowder at State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City at 8:30 p.m. Thursday — accustomed to shooting in something a bit larger than Stonewall’s Murphy-Roberts Gymnasium (where the 28-2 Lady Loghorns are unbeaten this season).

Sophomore guard Tesia Worcester seemed to have the most questions about the size and the layout of the arena where she and her teammates will play the first state tournament contest for a Stonewall girls’ squad in 44 years. Finally, she realized that, as a youngster, she had attended an ice show in the arena.

“Wow!” Worcester said, her eyes widening. “That place is BIG.”

The questions by Worcester and the other Lady Longhorn players pointed out just how young this team really is. In fact, when Plunk prefaced a reference to “Hoosiers” (the part where Gene Hackman took his team to the site of the state championship game and showed his players that the dimensions of the floor were exactly the same as their gym back in Hickory) by asking who had seen the movie, nobody held up a hand.

But as young as Jennings (who, as a freshman and sophomore at Byng, went to two state tournaments with Plunk as her coach) and her team are, they’ve grown up in a hurry this season. After going 18-8 but failing to survive the district round in Jennings’ first season as head coach, Stonewall made a steady climb up the Class A rankings this season and finished the regular season 24-1 and riding a 10-game winning streak.

Then, after losing to sixth-ranked Davenport in the regional championship game, the Lady Longhorns went to the area round in Chickasha and won three straight overtime games in the loser’s bracket (staging second-half rallies each time) to reach the state tournament. To celebrate her team’s accomplishment, Jennings gave her players T-shirts this week emblazoned with the words, “Why Not Us?”, the simple slogan that will be Stonewall’s battle cry in Oklahoma City.

“It’s a Kim Mulkey thing,” Jennings said, referring to the young Baylor women’s coach who took her team to an NCAA title last season. “She has T-shirts printed for everything. I figure somebody has to win it ... it might as well be us.

“You never know what’s going to happen once you get there,” Jennings added. “My sophomore year (1994) we got there with a losing record and we were playing (in the finals) on Saturday night. I definitely think we have a legitimate shot — we believe we belong there.”

Stonewall blew into the playoffs as this area’s dominant team, having handed Coalgate (ranked No. 6 in 2A and due to face Pocola in McAlester Friday night for a state tournament berth) its only loss of the season to cap a tough four-game stretch that saw the Lady Longhorns beat good teams from Tupelo, Strother, Allen and Coalgate in succession.

But after easy wins in their district and the first round of the regional tournament, the Lady Longhorns ran into a rock-ribbed Davenport defense in the regional final and scored a season-low 29 points in a 10-point loss. Juniors Felicia Logsdon and Rena Serpa, the team’s leading scorers for the season, were neutralized that night and again in the first round of the area tournament (an overtime win over Navajo), but both came back to play key roles in Stonewall’s victories over Okarche and Thomas to complete the unlikely overtime trifecta.

“I don’t know if the Davenport game messed up our confidence, but it made us sluggish and made us doubt ourselves a little bit,” Jennings said. “After we beat Okarche (in a game where the Lady Warriors missed four straight point-blank shots at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime), we thought there might be a little bit of fate involved.

“When we hit that overtime Saturday (against Thomas after rallying from a 10-point halftime deficit), the kids were excited and saying the game was ours,” she added. “They believe they can win it (the state title), and I think confidence is half the battle for my team. I think sometimes we play over our heads because we believe we can.”

In Crowder, the Lady Longhorns will face a club that dispatched a good Smithville team (which came back Saturday to beat No. 8 New Lima Saturday to make the Big Show) with relative ease in the area finals at Ada’s Cougar Activity Center Friday night to improve to 28-1 on the season. The Demonettes are led by seniors Rashena Smith and Laura Harris, and Jennings said she expects Crowder to give her team a big test.

“Offensively, I think they are really tough,” Jennings said of the Crowder girls. “Harris and Smith are both big threats. Smith is a great player inside and outside.

“I don’t think their defense is as strong as some of the teams we’ve seen in the playoffs, but they make up for it on the offensive end,” she added. “We’re going to try to use every opportunity we have to score on fast breaks, but otherwise we’ll try to be patient. I think that plays against (Crowder). And I think we might have a little bit of an edge in defense and rebounding.”

Logson bounced back from her two-game offensive slump to score in double figures in Stonewall’s last two games, and Worcester (who had a team-high 14 points in the Navajo win) exploded for 20 points — including 15 in the second half — Saturday and was a force on defense with three key steals in a fourth quarter that saw Stonewall outscore Thomas, 10-2.

Serpa, at six feet, teams with the 5-10 Logsdon to give the Lady Longhorns a height advantage Thursday, while Worcester and fellow sophomore Cherokee Brown (one of the area’s most improved players this season) to give Stonewall quickness in the backcourt. Steady Tobie Daniel (the team’s only senior) can play high or low, and she hit a big 3-pointer to send the Navajo game into overtime.

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