CLAXTON — The Lady Tigers entered Wednesday’s Class A state quarterfinal against Emanuel County Institute aiming to take the next step after last year’s squad fell short in the same round.
Claxton (25-5) began the fourth quarter trailing by six points, but a gutsy comeback led to Nyeisha Kirkland’s layup with 4.7 seconds remaining to claim a 55-54 win and advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“What is there to say?” Claxton coach Laura Aziz said. “This is incredible for us. We knew that we were in a tough spot in the fourth, but these girls really believed in themselves.”
For most of the second half, it appeared that the Tigers’ best efforts would be in vain.
A 3 from Devonna Brewton (nine points) drew Claxton even at 46-46 with 5:02 to play, but the Bulldogs (17-9) showed their muscle.
On three consecutive possessions, ECI shooters misfired, only to have a teammate pull down an offensive rebound and score second chance points. The Bulldogs outfought the Tigers for rebounds and — when long rebounds bounced off the rim — always seemed to be in the right place.
“We were disappointed in our defense at times,” Aziz said. “We just didn’t get to rebounds and gave their good shooters too many open looks. In the end, fixing those things helped us come back.”
Ashonna Steele picked up an offensive rebound and scored to give ECI a 51-46 lead with 3:01 to play. Steele had helped the Bulldogs pull ahead with four 3-pointers and 20 total points. Her final bucket got the ECI faithful on their feet, but also marked the point where Claxton dug in and set the late drama in motion.
Keri Brown (21 points) hit a free throw with 2:06 to play. On the ensuing ECI possession, Jazmine Price picked off a pass and was fouled while hitting a layup. Price missed her free throw, but Brown retrieved a loose ball and hit a short jumper to tie the game at the 1:49 mark.
ECI seemed to stick another dagger into the Tigers when Brianna Williams hit a 3 with 49.2 seconds to play.
Brown got Claxton within 54-53 seconds later, but the Tigers had amassed just four team fouls and spent the next 15 seconds trying to get the Bulldogs to the free throw line.
Claxton missed a golden opportunity as Steele missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity and the ball bounced off of a Tiger player. Steele was again fouled and an air-mailed free throw attempt gave Claxton a final chance with 20.3 seconds to play.
The Tigers quickly got the ball down the court and into the hands of Price. Price drove into the lane, drawing a double team before finding an open Kirkland under the basket for the winning bucket.
“We knew that we wanted to get the ball inside,” Aziz said. “Jazmine drove in and then made a great decision to get the shot we wanted.”
ECI had one final opportunity to answer, but the inbound pass sailed long and LaTia Williams couldn’t get a shot off after saving the ball from going out of bounds.
Claxton inbounded one last time and Price cradled the ball as time ran out and the home crowd erupted.
With the win, the Tigers move on to a semifinal showdown Saturday at Savannah State. Claxton will face either Towns County, which eliminated the Tigers in last season’s playoffs, or top-seeded Randolph-Clay.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.