CHARLESTON – Plenty of tears flowed after Tucker County’s season came to an end with a semifinal loss to St. Marys, and Coach Jim Ambrose understood why.
“These girls worked really, really hard to get to this point, and that’s why it hurts so much,” he said following Friday’s 55-42 loss.
The heartbreak was that much worse because despite a really rough shooting day the Lady Mountain Lions led 34-31 when Bekah Simmons hit a basket 10 seconds into the final quarter.
From that point on, however, the Lady Blue Devils allowed just one field goal and struggled from the free throw line as well, allowing St. Marys to advance to the championship game for the fourth time in five years.
“It wasn’t a victory today,” St. Marys Coach Howard Meeks II said. “It was a battle. The Tucker County coach and his girls played their hearts out. We know what it’s like to be from a small town and everybody loves you.”
St. Marys, the No. 2 seed, held the lead through most of the first half as No. 3 Tucker County struggled with foul trouble. The Lady Mountain Lions were called for 14 fouls in the first 16 minutes, including three on Simmons and Savannah Ambrose and two each on Mariah Bowley, Steph Betler and Elizabeth Nichols.
Tucker County (20-5) found its touch in third quarter with a 9-2 run to take a 32-28 lead on a Nichols 3-pointers with 1:35 left in the period. Ambrose, Betler and Aiyana Kachmarek each hitting baskets as well.
That was as close as Tucker County would come to victory, however, as St. Marys scored nine consecutive points after Simmons’ early basket. That allowed the Lady Blue Devils to pull the ball out and stall, forcing Tucker County to foul.
St. Marys (24-1) went an amazing 13-of-13 at the free throw line in the final 2:17 to secure the victory.
Overall, though, it was 19 percent shooting (13-of-67) that doomed the upset attempt. Betler led the team with 15 points, while Madison Mullenax had seven and Kachmarek six. Ambrose had 15 rebounds.
“We got three or four stops where we needed buckets and we didn’t get them,” Ambrose said of the fourth quarter struggles. “You can’t let that happen against a great team like St. Marys.”
The entire game was physical both ways, with two Lady Blue Devils fouling out along with Simmons and Nichols.
“Several times Steph got knocked down and got hurt,” Ambrose said. “She decided to gut it out, and I don’t think she missed a minute.”
Betler, who had 15 points, said games against Southern are the only ones that compared to St. Marys.
“It was pretty physical, but I was expecting it, it wasn’t really shocking,” she said. “I feel like if we shot a little better that we could have beat them.”
Four seniors – Betler, Ambrose, Simmons and Bowley – finished their careers at the Charleston Civic Center. Ambrose said he told the entire team that while he wanted to win games at the state tournament, no result could change the way he felt about them.
“I’m proud of these girls,” he said. “I told them before we left home, ‘Nothing you do down here is going to change that.’ ”
Soon the focus will turn to an 11th consecutive trip to the state tournament.
“Hopefully we’ll regroup and the girls will work hard and we’ll be back down here next year,” Ambrose said. “Our offseason is going to be our key for next year. There are going to be a lot of different faces next year. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see who’s going to work hard.”
By Chris Stadelman
For The Parsons Advocate