PICKERINGTON – There is a point in practicing free throws this time of year. They may come in useful.
The Africentric Lady Nubians provided evidence for the fact Thursday evening.
Africentric held off a South Webster rally in the fourth quarter, and then sealed the Division IV regional semifinal game at the charity stripe in a 75-66 win at Pickerington North High School.
“We've been working a lot on free throw shooting in practice,” Africentric coach Will McKinney said. “When you get to this point in the tournament, you're going to have to hit your free throws and that was an important part of the game.”
Africentric, which finished the season as the division's Associated Press poll champion, moves on to face Waterford in the regional championship Saturday evening.
The Lady Nubians were led by Alesia Howard and Tyeasha Moss with 21 points each. Shardai Morrison-Fountain had 10 points and Ashar Harris tallied eight.
Through its ball pressure, fast-paced offensive game, Africentric (23-1) built a 58-46 advantage at the end of three periods.
“We wanted to come out, pressure the basketball and try to make a run,” McKinney said. “We had a lead going into the fourth quarter, but I kept telling the girls that this game wasn't over. South Webster is a great team and they made their run.
“We knew South Webster was a good team, and I'm still trying to figure out how this team wasn't ranked in the AP poll. I've watched them play a couple of times and they can hit the three-pointer pretty well.”
The Lady Jeeps proved McKinney right in the fourth quarter.
A pair of three-pointers by Kayla Cook and a layup from Erin Sherman quickly sliced the South Webster (23-1) deficit from 12 to four points.
“I'm so proud of the kids and the comeback they made,” South Webster coach Kristie Johnson said. “We said from the beginning we were going to do everything we could to try and win this game. We went and played their type of ball, and we learned how to do that over the summer.”
South Webster wiggled to within a point of Africentric when Kara Cayton, who was nursing a bad ankle, took a pass from Molly Roark and hit a deep three-pointer, making the score 62-61 with three minutes left.
Cayton had just come off of the bench moments before, receiving a large ovation from the large contingent of South Webster fans who made the trip.
“She (Cayton) looked at me and said, 'I'm ready',” Johnson said. “I wanted to make sure she was really ready, because all my girls know their health is more important. I don't care if we're winning the state championship game, their safety is first.
“I told her she had a college career (Cedarville) she was looking at, and she said she was sure. She was in pain and you could tell it, but she went after it. All of the girls are that way. They had a will. We were on a mission this year and they gave everything they had.”
A layup from Moss extended the Africentric lead back to three on the next possession, and began a 13-5 run to close the game. Africentric canned 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch, including five from Moss, and also forced a pair of turnovers with its pressure defense.
“It turned out to be a matter of two or three shots of them not hitting or us hitting, and it's a different ballgame,” Johnson said. “That's how it works at this level when 16 teams are left.”
McKinney credited the Lady Nubians to being able and overcome a close game like this to a pair of earlier contests this season – a 47-43 loss to Chicago Whitney Young and a 50-43 win over Hoover.
“We had a couple of good games during the season that prepared us for games like this,” he said. “We went to play Chicago Whitney Young, who was nationally ranked, and battled back from a 20-point deficit at halftime to lose by four. We then defeated Hoover at the Classic in the Country and that was another important game. Those two games helped us prepare for the tournament and games like this.”
South Webster was led by Cayton with 28 points. Cook had 24 points and Sherman tallied 10.
The Lady Jeeps were not ranked by the AP poll during the course of the season, even though they twice beat two teams that made the regional tournament in Division III – Wheelersburg and Oak Hill.
“We play mostly a (Division) II and III schedule, went undefeated and didn't receive one look,” Johnson said. “Two of the teams we beat twice made it to the Sweet 16. We have strong basketball in southeast Ohio and we don't get the recognition.
“If nothing else comes from this ballgame, maybe some will see we have some athletes down there too. These girls gave everything they had and I'm extremely proud of them.”