Nitro girls basketball coach Pat Jones will head to next week’s state tournament without a beard after telling his team he’d shave it in the locker room with a victory on Tuesday.
But removing the hair from his face likely won’t match the hair he’s lost while watching his team’s postseasons over the past two years.
The Class AAA No. 4 Wildcats added yet another hectic chapter to that on Tuesday.
From down nine points, to up 15, to holding on for dear life, to pulling away with a double-digit win, host Nitro (15-1) put Jones and Wildcats fans through the gamut of emotions yet again before locking down a 63-50 win over No. 3 St. Joseph in a Region 4 co-final, sending the Wildcats back to the state tournament for a second straight year.
Nitro was awarded the No. 3 seed and will face No. 6 Midland Trail at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. St. Joseph’s season ended at 11-4.
It was a vintage Wildcats performance, filled with dizzying scoring bursts and head-scratching lulls and, in the end, yet again, Nitro found a way behind star guard Baylee Goins and enough help from its role players.
“This group of girls never gives up, it’s unbelievable,” Jones said. “We’re down 15-6 at the end of the first quarter and outscored them by 22 points the rest of the game. It’s just the type of girls they are. The fight is unreal. They never give up.”
Goins was held scoreless on three shots in the first quarter as St. Joseph came out in a box-and-one defense, using Julia Preservati to shade the senior guard full court. Things flipped quickly, however, in the second quarter as Goins scored 11 points as part of a 13-3 run to open the second quarter to give Nitro its first lead at 19-18 with 4:06 left until half. The Wildcats eventually took a 25-24 advantage into the break.
Nitro continued to roll in the third quarter as it built a 15-point lead thanks to a period-closing 10-0 run sparked by 3-pointers from Goins and Brooklyn Bowen.
In a nail-biting 71-64 overtime win over Winfield in last week’s Section 1 final, Nitro was without the services of junior forward Lena Elkins, who participated in a Wildcats softball game. She showed up for the basketball team on Tuesday in a big way, contributing eight points and six rebounds across the pivotal second and third quarters and Patricia Ward added six more points, keeping the Irish honest in defending all five positions.
That helped spread the floor for Goins, who scored 21 of her 28 points over the middle frames to go with eight rebounds and seven assists.
“It’s like we just realize how serious the moment is and it’s like we all start playing hard at one time — we feed off each other’s energy,” Goins said.
The energy was switched in a big hurry to start the fourth quarter as the Irish ripped off 12 points on four-straight 3s — two from Amya Damon and one each for Ava Lee and Makayla Smith — to cut the Nitro lead to three at 48-45. That advantage got as low as two and the Irish had possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
With Goins seemingly running on empty, having missed her first five shots of the fourth quarter, Bowen came up with a pivotal steal and passed to Goins, who found a wide-open Taylor Maddox standing on the 3-point line. It turned out to be the only shot Maddox hit, but her triple with 2:59 left squelched the St. Joseph momentum and sparked a final 11-0 flurry that sent Nitro on its way.
“Up two and then she hits a big 3 from the corner and I told her to keep believing in herself,” Jones said. “She’s had a couple of rough games but she stays after practice, she goes to the gym and shoots all the time and I told her, ‘It’s going to start falling, you’ve just got to believe in it.’ And she hit the one that counted the most.”
It was just a little too little, a little too late for the Irish, who lost five likely starters via transfer before the season started and played the season with only seven players. St. Joseph made its Class AAA debut this season after winning nine of the past 11 Class A titles.
“With a young team, inexperienced, we didn’t adjust real well on the offensive end for a while,” Irish coach Shannon Lewis said. “We dug ourselves such a hole, we got back within two and then they buried a 3 and that was a big shot and kind of pulled away from there. We were right there, had some chances. I was proud of the kids for the run they made in the fourth and when you dig yourself that big of a hole it’s hard to get over the hump. We got there, we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Damon had 21 points and nine rebounds to lead the Irish while Lee finished with 10 points. Bowen registered a double-double for Nitro, ending with 14 points and 10 boards.