High school girls basketball: Chambers’ free throws lift Benton to victory in 4A semifinal thriller

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Qua Chambers hit two free throws with 3.8 seconds left to lift the Benton Lady Tigers to a 47-46 victory over the A.J. Ellender Lady Patriots in the semifinals of the Class 4A girls basketball playoffs Tuesday night at Rapides Parish Coliseum in Alexandria.

Benton (34-3), the No. 1 seed, will play defending state champion and No. 2 seed Warren Easton (31-5) for the state championship at 8 p.m. Friday. The Fighting Eagles defeated No. 3 Minden 53-39 in the other semifinal game.

Warren Easton defeated Benton 64-54 in the semifinals last season. The Lady Tigers defeated the Fighting Patriots 45-43 in the Battle on the Hardwood on Nov. 16 this season.

“I’m just so proud of the girls,” Benton head coach Mary Ward said. “I think they were really hurt last year when they lost, and they just really want to play for that championship. So just to get back to to the state tournament and now to get to the state championship game, I know they’re very excited to have this opportunity.

“And they’ve worked hard all year. They worked hard all offseason. We’re just very blessed to be in this position.”

Tuesday’s game was tied at 45 with 17 seconds left and Benton had the ball out of bounds near half court. After a time out, Emily Ward fired a pass to Chambers racing toward the basket. Her shot barely missed, falling off the left side of the rim.

With just over five seconds left, Ellender’s Terris McKay was fouled while shooting on a drive to the basket. She missed the first free throw but made the second.

After a Benton time out, Jada Anderson got the ball in to Chambers who dribbled down the right sideline. She was cut off and fouled near halfcourt.

Chambers stepped to the line and swished the first free throw to tie it. After an Ellender time out, Chambers swished the second one to give Benton the 47-46 lead.

“Those will be two free throws she’ll remember the rest of her life,” Ward said.

Ellender appeared to get a final shot off at the buzzer from about 25 feet, but it bounced off the backboard and didn’t come close to going in.

Benton will be making its third appearance in a state championship game. The Lady Tigers made it to the Class 3A title game in 1997 and the Class 1A title game in 1978, losing both times.

The semifinal was a tight, tense affair all the way. It wasn’t always pretty, but there was plenty of drama to keep the fans on the edge of their seats.

“That was a sloppy game but we’ll take the win,” Ward said.

Both teams had chances to take control, but each time one looked like it was going to do just that, the other had an answer.

“I think we were were just trading buckets,” Ward said. “I know Emily and Jada hit some big 3s and Abbie Wynn hit a shot on the baseline kind of toward the end.”

Benton led 23-20 at the half and scored the first four points of the second to go up 27-20. But Ellender answered with an 8-0 run to take the lead.

The Lady Tigers led 36-34 going into the fourth quarter.

Ward hit two straight baskets to give Benton a 40-36 lead.  But the Lady Patriots knocked down a 3-pointer and scored inside to go ahead by one with about four minutes to play.

Wynn’s basket, her only one of the game, gave the Lady Tigers a 45-43 lead with just over a minute left. The Lady Patriots scored on a drive to tie it for a final time.

Ward led Benton with 17 points. Chambers added 14 and Anderson 10. Dana Wainwright had four.

Tanisha Hester, a 5-foot-11 forward, led Ellender (23-11) with 20 points. She scored several off offensive rebounds.

McKay, a Nicholls State signee, scored 17 with 13 of those coming in the second half.

With Hester, Ellender had a decided height advantage. But that’s nothing new for Benton to overcome.

“Pretty much every time we match up with people or we look across the court, we’re probably a lot shorter than everybody that we’ve faced so far,” Ward said. “So we’ve kind of got to rely on our speed, got to rely a little bit more on the fundamentals of blocking out and the girls did that tonight.”