ROAN MOUNTAIN -- Cloudland had a clear advantage over Oliver Springs with 6-foot-2 senior Brooke Rhodes in the post, and the Lady Highlanders did all they could to exploit it.
Rhodes, a Miss Basketball candidate, scored 26 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and had four blocked shots to lead the Lady Highlanders to a 51-43 victory over the Lady Bobcats in Saturday night’s TSSAA Class A sectional at Sonny Smith Gymnasium.
After starting the season 2-7, the Lady ‘Landers (24-11) have now won 18 of their last 20 games to make the state tournament in Murfreesboro for a second straight year.
“We all had the same mindset,” said Rhodes, who is committed to Presbyterian (S.C.) College. “No one believed in us, but we knew when everyone got healthy, we were going to do it. Now we’re going back to the ‘Boro. It’s a great feeling, just so sweet.”
Oliver Springs, which was led by guards Emily Griffith with 21 points and Kellie Ball with 12 points, ended its season at 22-9.
“It was a contrast of styles,” Lady Bobcats coach Michelle Christopher said. “We have to pressure and push, and that was what I felt like gave us the best chance of winning. We did a really good job of it, especially in the first half.
“But, they made some changes and we got into foul trouble. They started getting some offensive boards and that made the game swing. Rhodes is a big-time basketball player. It’s nice to a great player like that, especially in single-A.”
Oliver Springs took an 11-7 lead at the end of one quarter, but Rhodes scored on Cloudland’s last three possessions of the first half to tie the game at 19-apiece.
Rhodes followed up with Cloudland’s first four baskets of the third quarter as the Lady ‘Landers held a 31-28 advantage heading into the final period.
“We really didn’t come out like we had prepared,” Cloudland head coach Matt Birchfield said. “We were kind of shaky in some of our sets early, and it hurt us some. If you turn it over, they get transition buckets.
“The one change we made at halftime was to get the ball to Brooke. Kendall (Mull) comes out of halftime and makes a great pass to her and executed our play. Rhodes scored three in a row for us and that was great. The kids really adjusted to the changes we made.”
Rhodes scored on Cloudland’s first three possessions of the fourth quarter to push the Lady ‘Landers out to a 38-30 lead, only to see the Lady Bobcats cut the margin baack to three points.
The turning point came when Courtney Wilson battled past an Oliver Springs defender for the offensive rebound and put-back on a free throw. Fouled on the play, Wilson hit a free throw to put Cloudland up 46-39 with 2:09 left.
“That was a huge play,” Birchfield said. “She had struggled making some shots, but there was no bigger play than that. For her to get a put-back on the rebound and make the free throw, she played great down the stretch.”
The play epitomized Cloudland’s overall effort which included eight points by Deandra Jarrett and seven assists from Martina Presnell.
“We wanted it and we got it,” said Wilson who suffered a cut over her right eye in the first quarter. “This is what we’ve been pushing for all year. So many people said we couldn’t do it, but now we’re here.”