By Ben Robinson
Thursday’s narrow 64-63 win in double-overtime over National Trail wasn’t Covington’s best performance of the season by any means, but it was the type of game that could galvanize the Lady Buccs for a long tournament run —- depending on how they handle it.
Yes, on paper National Trail should have been a relatively easy win as the Blazers came into the contest with an 11-9 record overall and a sub-par 4-7 record in Cross County Conference play —- while Covington fielded a 16-3 record and stood at 9-2 in the CCC.
But National Trail proved it is a much better basketball team than its record by playing very inspired basketball for four quarters and two extra frames. The Lady Blazers didn’t blink an eye against the firepower Covington presented on what was their “Senior Night”.
National Trail jumped out to a lead and every time Covington made a run the Lady Blazers responded at every turn.
For Covington, it was an ugly night where everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.
There were uncharacteristic turnovers, shots missed at point blank range and three key players fouled out of the contest. Yet, the Lady Buccs found a way to squeeze out a one-point win.
To set the tone, National Trail came out of from the opening tip on fire —- building a 15-6 lead before Covington was able to close the gap to 15-10 on a bucket by Sammi Whiteman and two free throws by Lauren Christian.
Neither team had much offensive success in the second quarter, but a huge three-pointer by Whiteman helped Covington close the gap to 20-19 at the break.
National Trail came out in the second half on fire once again, while Covington looked like a team playing in quicksand.
Behind the sharp shooting of junior Makena Laird, senior Evan Byrd and freshman sensation Skylar Ward, the Lady Blazers built a 41-29 lead late in the third quarter and appeared to have Covington rattled.
But Covington senior Lillian Hamilton stepped up with the defensive play of the game after a bucket by freshman teammate Makenzee Maschino.
On a very quick inbounds pass by National Trail, Hamilton snuck behind the Blazer ball handler and tipped the ball away to teammate Claudia Harrington. Harrington quickly passed the ball across court to junior Morgan Lowe, who spotted up and hit a huge trey to cut the deficit to 41-34 with just under 30 seconds left in the third.
After a defensive stop at the other end, Whiteman was fouled and hit both free throws to cut the margin to 41-33 with one quarter to play.
It seemed to turn the momentum in Covington’s favor as the Lady Buccs eventually knotted the score at 48-48 on a bucket by Whiteman and then took their first lead of the contest 50-48 seconds later on a Hamilton putback.
But anyone thinking National Trail would wilt under the pressure was completely wrong as the Lady Blazers showed heart and competitive desire by responding to everything Covington threw at them.
A huge trey by Byrd followed and from there it was a back-and-forth contest the rest of the way.
Covington was hindered down the stretch as Morgan Kimmel fouled out and teammates Morgan Lowe and Lauren Christian each picked up their fourth fouls as the game went into overtime knotted up at 51-51.
National Trail scored first in the initial extra session, but Covington responded to take the lead on a traditional tree-point play by Whiteman.
Evan Byrd connected on yet another three-pointer to spark National Trail to a 59-57 lead as Whiteman quickly called a timeout with 3.5 second left on the clock.
As the two teams took to the floor after discussing strategy with their coaches, it was obvious National Trail wasn’t going to allow the ball to fall into Sammi Whiteman’s hands.
So Claudia Harrington, who was inbounding the basketball, tossed a pass three-quarters the length of the floor into the waiting hands of a wide open Lauren Christian. As Christian gathered possession of the ball and attempted to shoot from near the free throw line, she was fouled by a Blazer defender.
Christian calmly sank both free throws under intense pressure to tie the score at 59-59 and send the game into double-overtime.
As the second extra five-minute session began, Covington defensive specialist Morgan Lowe was whistled for her fifth foul.
Seconds later Lauren Christian picked up her fifth foul, depleating Covington’s bench.
Which set the stage for the heroics of Sammi Whiteman, who had been battling illness over the past few days.
Whiteman dropped in a bucket off of a beautiful pass from Claudia Harrington in the paint and converted a free show before recording a huge assist with a timely pass to Hamilton for a layup.
After a defensive stop gave Covington the ball back with a 64-63 lead with 45 seconds left, the Lady Buccs hoped to force National Trail to foul or kill the clock.
Instead, National Trail played defense and was able to force Covington into an untimely turnover with 14 seconds left.
After a Blazer timeout to discuss strategy, National Trail had two open looks at the basket before the ball bounced off the rim and into the hands of Sammi Whiteman – who dribbled to mid-court as the buzzer sounded.
In the end, it was a case of Covington finding a way to win – even though it didn’t play its best basketball.
And although she was suffering from illness, Whiteman led the Lady Buccs with a game-high 30 points, while Morgan Kimmel scored 10 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Skyler Ward and Evan Byrd led a gritty National Trail team with 19 points each, while Makena Laird dropped in 11 points.
With the win, Covington shared second place in the CCC with Miami East and Franklin Monroe.
The Lady Buccs, who improve to 17-3 overall and 10-2 in the CCC, hope to use this contest as a galvanizing moment as it closes out the regular season at home on Monday against Troy.