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Stifling defense propels Lady Mustangs into state tourney
South Effingham junior center Jillian Pellote (21) battles New Hampstead's Gabrielle Vincent (23) on the opening tip at New Hampstead on Wednesday. The Lady Mustangs Maleece Newbill (10) watches. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

BLOOMINGDALE -- It wasn't the Phoenix that rose from the ashes on Wednesday.

Powered by a tenacious press, the South Effingham Lady Mustangs overcame a 14-point deficit to defeat New Hampstead 37-36 in a Region 2-AAAAA tournament play-in game, thereby clinching a spot in next week's state tournament.

South Effingham entered the fourth quarter down 30-24 and trailed 26-14 midway through the third period.

"Defense won the game for us," Lady Mustangs coach Jenifer Hall said. "Our press created some turnovers with tremendous pressure. That was a fantastic fourth quarter."

South Effingham, which tallied only three points in the first quarter and trailed 19-10 at halftime, overcame all sorts of adversity, including poor shooting and injuries. Guard Cheyenne Bosewell left the game with a foot injury almost immediately after sinking a three that gave her team its first lead at 35-32 with 2:25 left.

Cianne Trenary had tied the game 20 seconds earlier with a short jumper. She was fouled on the play but missed the resulting free throw to leave the game knotted 32-32.

The Phoenix, after Bosewell's trey, clawed back to a 36-36 tie when Gabrielle Vincent canned one of two free throws with 32 seconds remaining. New Hampstead, however, never got off another shot.

The Lady Mustangs, who had lost nine straight games, struggled mightily to get the winning point. They turned the ball over on their first try and Keira NeSmith missed a fastbreak layup on the second.

With 15 seconds left, Mallori Jenkins came up with a steal and Hall quickly called for a timeout.

The play Hall called didn't result in points but the Lady Mustangs outmuscled the Phoenix on the boards, getting a few second chances before NeSmith was fouled, giving her a shot at redemption with eight seconds left.

NeSmith coolly sank the first throw to put South Effingham on top. She missed the second freebie, setting up a wild scramble under the basket. Again, the Lady Mustangs got a couple of putback chances as the clock ran out.

The buzzer signaled the start of a joyous celebration. The team, including Hall and assistant coach Varnard Reese, jumped up and down.

After a couple of minutes of hugging everyone in sight, Hall said, "Where's Kiera? Where's Kiera?"

After finding the game's last-second heroine, Hall embraced her with a big smile.

"I'm so glad Kiera got the chance to hit the winning shot," Hall said. "She's a good kid, an awesome kid."

New Hampstead beat South Effingham 60-55 last week by getting easy baskets in the lane. Valery Colon tallied several easy layups in that game but that wasn't the case Wednesday.

"We made a conscientious effort not to let number one (Colon) drive through the lane for easy points or pass once she got in there," Hall said.

Wednesday's game was originally slated to be played at Ware County. South Effingham appealed to the Georgia High School Association on the basis that it made little since for teams so close together to have to drive to Waycross to play.

"We didn't think it was good for our girls," Hall said.

The appeal was granted but not without some consternation. New Hampstead insisted on playing at Ware County rather than South Effingham, which was the fourth seed, a spot higher than the Phoenix, who ended up being listed as the guest on their own scoreboard.

"We decided we'd play them here even though we should have been at home," Hall said. "Coming here was better than having to go to Waycross."

With a state tourney bid in hand, South Effingham turned its attention to the 2-AAAAA tournament. It will play Ware County at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Statesboro.