By Josh Brown
TROY — It may not have been in ideal fashion.
And it may not be good for coach Aaron Johnson’s stress levels.
But if that’s the cost of winning? The new Troy girls basketball coach will pay it.
“I’ll take some heart pills,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not the goal (to win tense games in the final seconds). But like I told the girls — I’ll take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day of the week.”
Troy’s Jordan Short scored a game-high 17 points, going a perfect 6 for 6 from the free throw line on a day where the Trojans struggled as a team and hitting some clutch ones late, Alaura Holycross posted a double-double and Bailey Hess hit a pair of free throws with less than a second left after Ponitz had missed a pair of potentially game-tying 3-point tries, helping Troy hold on for a nail-biting 44-39 victory Saturday in its home opener at the Trojan Activities Center.
It’s the first time Troy has began a season 2-0 since the 2011-12 season, when it began 3-0 and finished with a 14-7 record. The 2013-14 season was the last time the Trojans won their season opener before this season — Troy held off Springfield Shawnee in another tense finish, 46-43 on Monday.
Saturday’s win against the Golden Panthers was anything but clean, but it was certainly hard fought.
“I think we learned a valuable lesson today,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to out-talent anyone. We need to out-execute and outwork them. I don’t know that we did that in the first half today, and to Ponitz’s credit, they played their butts off. They got the majority of loose balls, the got rebounds, they outhustled us. They’re a very quick team, and they made some big shots throughout the game.
“What I liked — when we needed the response, we made plays. We responded. At points, when we needed some clutch free throws, we got clutch free throws.”
Making more free throws before the clutch ones, though, could have made the game’s finish a lot less stressful.
Troy was 19 for 39 from the free throw line in the game as a team, only 49 percent. The Trojans were 8 for 15 at halftime and held a slim 24-21 lead, then they went only 3 for 12 in the third quarter, missing a lot of chances to extend their lead and holding a 33-31 lead heading into the fourth.
“That’s one of those things that’s been our nemesis in the past, and it’s one of those things that continues to be,” Johnson said. “I do think at this point it’s mental. It’s just a confidence thing.”
In that fourth quarter, Troy went only 8 for 20 from the line — but a pair of technical fouls on Ponitz allowed Troy to choose the shooter, and Short knocked down both pairs, given the chance. The second set of technical free throws by Short gave the Trojans a 42-37 lead with less than two minutes left to play.
“When you pick someone to shoot your technical fouls, those are points that you have to get,” Johnson said. “Jordan is just a great shooter. She’s one of if not our best shooter, and when you get those situations where I can choose who goes to the free throw line, it’s going to be Jordan.”
Ponitz’s Brianna Lyle answered with a pair of free throws to make it a three-point game with 1:38 to play. The Panthers missed three shots before Holycross was finally able to grab a rebound, but the Trojans missed a pair of free throws and Ponitz called timeout with 41.8 seconds left. Valena Robinson stole the in-bounds pass, Ponitz stole it back, and Holycross came away with another steal at midcourt — but again, Troy missed two free throws, giving the Panthers one more possession with 15 seconds remaining.
Ponitz aired on a 3-pointer that would’ve tied the game with 7.7 seconds left, then the teams traded turnovers from there, with Hess finally sinking a pair of free throws to make it a two-possession game with 0.9 seconds left to seal the win.
It was a game that Troy led throughout, unlike Monday’s win at Springfield Shawnee, where the teams traded the lead back and forth a number of times.
After the Panthers took a 4-2 lead early thanks to a number of offensive rebounds, Short hit a pair of free throws to tie the score and Holycross stole the ball and took it in for a layup to give Troy a 6-4 lead. A jumper by Short and a pair of Hess free throws gave Troy a 10-5 lead, but the Trojans led only 10-9 at the end of one.
Troy’s lead grew to as big as eight in the second quarter at 24-16 after a jumper by Short, but Ponitz closed the half on a 5-0 run to cut the lead to 24-21, and Myeesha Hall hit a 3 to kick off the second half and tie the score at 24-24 early in the third.
“Overall, it’s very rarely happened in the past where we’ve been in situations where we’ve been up and played with the lead. So we have to learn how to play with the lead,” Johnson said. “There are some times where we don’t have to attack the basket, we can bring the ball out and run the clock a bit and not really have to look to score.”
But with Ponitz holding a hefty edge on the boards — 39-30 for the game — Holycross gave the Trojans a stopper when they needed one. With the score tied at 24-24, the Trojans missed a pair of free throws but Holycross grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds, allowing Kiyha Adkins to give the lead back to Troy with a free throw. Short extended that lead by hitting Troy’s only 3-pointer of the game, and a steal and layup by Adkins made it 30-24 Troy early in the third, setting up the battle the rest of the way as each time Ponitz closed the gap, Troy responded.
Short led the Trojans with 17 points, Holycross had 10 points and 10 rebounds and Hess had six points, all from the free throw line. Adkins finished with five points, Tia Bass had two points and five rebounds and Robinson and Alyse Holter each scored two points.
“We were able to survive,” Johnson said. “We’re a young team, It was our home opener, and there’s some anxiety there. I think we forced things a lot and didn’t let the game come to us. It took us a little while before we settled down. We’re going to look at tape and see what we did. Those are the kind of mistakes we’re going to have to correct before we go to Greenville.”
The Trojans open Greater Western Ohio Conference North Division play Wednesday at Greenville.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.