NASHVILLE – During a shuttle bus ride Thursday afternoon to Allen Arena on the campus of Lipscomb University, about 20 Trinity Christian Academy students asked the driver to turn up the volume on the famous Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive.”
They all sang along with Gaynor, excited to watch their team, ranked first in the state all year, play Tipton-Rosemark Academy in the DII-A state semifinals.
When TRA jumped out to a 12-0 lead and didn’t allow TCA to score until 7:15 was left in the second quarter, the TCA fans looked stunned as it appeared their team was not going to survive the Lady Rebels’ swarming defense.
TCA still trailed by 14 late in the third quarter, but consecutive 3-pointers by point guard Sally Howell midway through the fourth helped trim the lead to two and the Lady Lions (32-1) eventually pulled out a 64-59 overtime win to move into Saturday’s state title game against King’s Academy.
The Lady Rebels (23-8) were forced to contemplate their fourth loss of the year to TCA and the end of a historic season.
Senior Megan Sanfratello and junior Brianna Hall were still in tears when they walked into the media interview room 15 minutes after the loss.
“We had them the whole game,” Hall said. “I don’t think they led until the fourth quarter. Just losing that lead and then fighting back to get into overtime, it’s hard. It’s just a hard loss.”
“We had the momentum,” Sanfratello said. “After those two 3s we just shut down and couldn’t get the same momentum we had to start.”
First-year head coach Cedric Anderson was not in tears, but the loss clearly hit him hard. In two of the previous three meetings with TCA, Rosemark also held late leads they could not hold.
“It’s always tough at this point,” Anderson said. “Not only the loss, but when you have seniors who fought so hard for you and helped put the program on the map the last couple of years and laid the foundation. For it to be the end for them, that’s the toughest part.”
Sanfratello, who was 5 of 11 from 3-point range and finished with 18 points, hit a 3 as the fourth quarter started to give her team a 38-26 lead. With 4:18 left Howell hit her second 3 from the top of the key.
Rosemark managed to hold on to the lead until post player Emma Pagoaga, who led all scorers with 25, scored inside to put TCA ahead 51-49 with 55 seconds left in regulation.
After TCA missed two free throws with 26 seconds left, Hall, who finished with 18, drove the length of the court and scored with 17 seconds left to tie the game.
TCA got the ball to Pagoaga in the paint on its ensuing possession, but Jordan Allen stayed in front of her and time expired before she could get off a shot.
Sanfratello hit a 3 on TRA’s first overtime possession before TCA built a four-point lead and held on down the stretch.
With 4:53 left in the first quarter, TRA senior Abby West converted a 3-point play and scored again moments later put the Lady Rebels ahead 12-0. Rosemark’s full-court defense forced 10 TCA turnovers in the first half and held Macey Lee, a Miss Basketball finalist, scoreless.
“We were playing our game,” Anderson said. “I think we rattled them a little bit. We played full-court defense early. In the previous games we waited until the second half. We kind of caught them off guard a little bit. They kind of took a deep breath and steadied themselves, like a veteran team should do.”
TCA managed to cut the lead to three points midway through the third quarter, but TRA went on a 13-2 run and appeared to be in control.
Lee fouled out with 39 seconds left in regulation, scoring just five points.
Anderson said he felt good about his team’s chances when the game went into overtime.
“We thought we had them,” he said. “They had a couple of girls who were in foul trouble. Our girls, we just had to make a couple more plays. We were fortunate to get it to overtime by making a couple of plays. You spend so much energy to do that and fight like that, it was just tough for us to finish the game.”
This was Rosemark’s first trip to the state tournament after narrowly missing getting there the last two seasons.
“It means the world to everybody who is associated with Tipton-Rosemark Academy, the former players, the players who are coming back and the up-and-coming players,” Anderson said. “These ladies have raised the bar for a higher expectation. I think what we have to do now is go back home, work hard and put the time in so we can get back, because it’s never promised you can get here. These girls have shown the way.”
“Right now I’m just mad that we lost, really,” Sanfratello said. “Later it will set in that no other team has done this and that’s exciting to accomplish.”
Said Hall: “I’m so proud that we made it this far because it has not happened with Lady Rebel basketball before. It’s sad that we didn’t get the end result we wanted, but knowing that we got here is very big for us. I’m just happy for the team as a whole and hopefully we’ll do it again next year.”