MELISSA — For two quarters on Friday, Jan. 12, at Melissa High’s Bird Cage, Princeton and Melissa were locked in a tight, physical struggle — then the third quarter happened. That’s when the Lady Cardinals’ aggressive style and sure ball-handling — present from the start — finally combined to swamp the opposition. When Melissa (3-0) was done churning, the ledger read: Lady Cards 58, Lady Panthers 45.

(This observer had 59-45, others had 60, but the second-quarter discrepancy wound up not mattering.)

Melissa guard Sally Clemmons blew up for a game-high 28 points and a team-high six steals this night while fellow guard Taylor Thomas produced 15 points with two 3s and two assists, including a dazzling behind-the-back pass in the third stanza that brought the house down.

Lady Cards forward Ashley Gideon collected six rebounds, most on the team, and guard Natalie Conlin and forward Taylor Carney grabbed five boards each. Clemmons’ three assists was also a team-high.

Guard Alyssa Rivera topped Princeton’s scoring list, pumping in 12 points with four 3s — all in the first half. The Lady Cards are currently the No. 3-ranked Class 4A team in the state according to the Texas Girls Coaches Association.

Melissa head coach Heather Lane said the contest was a bit more physical than what her team had seen this season. “Which is good,” she added. “We needed that. Our kids just kept fighting and they kept their composure. In the second half, we made adjustments defensively and offensively and it seemed to work. We were able to get some kick-outs because they had so much pressure on us, and we got a lot of transition points in that third quarter.”

“We knew they were going to shoot a lot of 3s and we knew (Nakeitra) Missy Mack was going to attack,” Lane said. “In a game film that we saw they didn’t make a lot of 3s. Tonight they did. They had a good first half making those 3s, so we had to make an adjustment.”

Carney opened the contest with a deep trey from the right but by midway through the first period Rivera had canned two 3s and Princeton led, 9-5. The Lady Cards chipped back with two Thomas free throws then a Clemmons steal led to Thomas’ 3-pointer that gave Melissa a 10-9 lead.

Princeton (2-1) led again — and for the last time — at 13-12, an advantage erased by Clemmons’ layup off a no-look assist from Thomas. From there, Clemmons pilfered another ball and drove coast-to-coast for two. With the Lady Cards up, 16-15, Thomas stopped-and-popped a jumper and Clemmons stole the ensuing inbounds pass for another bucket. Still, the Lady Panthers wouldn’t go away. After two Princeton free throws closed out this initial stanza, Rivera’s next bomb from beyond the arc cut Melissa’s margin to 22-20 early in the second.

The Lady Cards’ next flurry included a length-of-the-court pass from Clemmons to a wide-open Gideon for two and Clemmons’ steal of Princeton’s subsequent inbounder for another layup, with a free throw tacked on. Down 28-20, (scoreboard showed 27-20), Princeton pushed back with a Kendra Gillespie 3 and two layups to trail by one.

Two Gideon free throws followed and back-to-back blocks by Gideon and Carney would end the Lady Panthers’ next two possessions. Clemmons’ put-back layup gave Melissa a 33-27 lead as the first half entered its final minute, but Rivera struck again from downtown and the Lady Panthers trailed by three. Thomas’ free throw sent Melissa to the break with a 34-30 edge.

Entering the third quarter, the match had the markings of a slugfest to the end but the script soon changed. Clemmons took a steal for a layup and followed with another close-in 2 off a fast break. Then, when Thomas fired her crowd-pleasing pass to Clemmons under the basket for two more, Melissa had its first 10-point lead, 41-31. Minutes later, forward Charley Lane drove inside for a bucket that sent the Lady Cards’ advantage to 44-32 — and Princeton to a timeout — with 2:37 left in the frame. Clemmons added two more layups to complete Melissa’s 14-3 third quarter.

In the fourth, Thomas’ 3 from just left of straight-on pushed the lead to 51-35. Clemmons followed with a jumper from the right and Conlin soon took a drive down the lane for 2. A Gideon layup sent the Lady Cards’ margin to 55-38 with 4:30 left to play and from there Melissa cruised home.

“Sally Clemmons and Taylor Thomas both had great games,” Lane said. “Thomas’ behind-the-back pass was the highlight, though. It got our crowd into it, for sure.”

Melissa scorers: Sally Clemmons 28, Taylor Thomas 15, Ashley Gideon 7, Charley Lane 4, Taylor Carney 3, Natalie Conlin 3.

Princeton scorers: Alyssa Rivera 12, Payton Aungst 8, Amanda Peters 8, Kendra Gillespie 6, Nakeitra Mack 4, Lilly Rodriguez 4, Ryleigh Aungst 2, K. Fuller 1.