The Benton Lady Tigers are headed to Alexandria and the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls’ Marsh Madness state tournament.
Benton, the No. 1 seed, defeated the No. 8 Carencro Lady Bears 52-46 before a near-capacity crowd in the Class 4A quarterfinals Thursday night at Benton.
The Lady Tigers (27-6) will play No. 4 Warren Easton (23-8) in the semifinals at Rapides Coliseum next week. Easton defeated No. 5 Bossier 57-32 Thursday.
“I’ve been nervous all day,” Benton coach Mary Ward said. “I wanted it so bad for the girls because there’s nothing like playing in the state tournament. This is such a great group of girls. I just want them to experience that. I’m so happy for them.”
The victory didn’t come easy. Carencro battled hard to the end. The game was tied at 21 at the half and Benton led 35-31 going into the fourth.
“It was one of those games that could’ve easily gone both ways,” Ward said. “You’ve got to give it to Carencro. They came to play. But I’m just so proud of our girls. They fought hard all year. They deserve to be down there.”
District 4-4A champion Carencro finished 26-3.
Benton pulled out to a five-point lead, its biggest of the game, with just over five minutes to play, but Carencro rallied and took a 43-41 lead on a 3-pointer with 2:53 left.
The Lady Tigers ended the game with an 11-3 run.
“I think we just didn’t panic,” said Benton junior Emily Ward, who scored nine of her game-high 20 points in the final period. “Sometimes when the other team goes up at the end we panic and start making turnovers, but we kept our composure the whole game.”
Ward’s clutch performance was far from the only reason for Benton’s victory.
She picked up three early fouls and sat on the bench during the entire second quarter. While she was out, the rest of the Lady Tigers more than held their own.
“They definitely picked it up for me because I got those three early fouls,” Emily Ward said. “My main thing going back into the game was not to get any more fouls and not get into foul trouble where I wouldn’t get out for the rest of the game.”
Said Mary Ward: “I think that was huge. When you have your leading scorer and leading rebounder come sit out for the second quarter, all the other girls stepped up. I think that was a big factor in the game.”
The Lady Tigers also got a boost when Carencro standout guard Ava Jones fouled out with about four minutes to play with the score tied at 39. Jones led the Lady Bears with 15 points.
Even with Jones out, Carencro hit the 3-pointer to go ahead by two, silencing the Benton crowd for the moment. The Lady Tigers fans weren’t quiet for long, though, as Benton answered with four straight points, including a basket by junior forward Abbie Wynn, to go up 45-43 with 2:21 left to play.
After a Carencro miss caused by good defense, Dana Wainwright hit a shot on the baseline to give the Lady Tigers a 47-43 lead with just over a minute remaining.
The Lady Bears missed again and Jada Anderson grabbed the rebound. Anderson, a freshman, hit two free throws with 37 seconds left to give Benton its biggest lead of the game at 49-43.
It wasn’t over yet, though, as Carencro’s Chrissy Brown banked in a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left to cut the Lady Tigers’ lead to three.
Ward sank two pressure-packed free throws to give Benton a 51-46 lead with 23 seconds left. After the Lady Bears missed from outside again, Qua Chambers made one of two free throws for the final margin.
Wynn finished with 10 points and Anderson added nine.
The Lady Tigers got great support from the Benton student section. And players and students alike celebrated on the court long after the final horn sounded.
Next stop: Alexandria.
“I’m so excited,” Emily Ward said. “We worked so hard for this, and I just want to do the best that we possibly can.”
At New Orleans, Bossier played Warren Easton even in the first half and trailed 22-21. But the Fighting Eagles dominated the second.
The Lady Kats finished an outstanding season 25-7. The game ended the high school careers of standouts Destiny Thomas, Chloe Walker and Dranautika Thomas.
— Russell Hedges, email@example.com