Lady Cards wrap up district title at Celina

CELINA – Melissa swept past Celina’s Lady Bobcats, 67-56, on Friday, Feb. 3, to clinch the District 11-4A title with one regular-season game left. The Lady Cards, whose district mark remains unblemished at 9-0, used their trademark nifty ball-handling and a quick, harassing defense to down Celina (7-2) on its Senior Night home court.

Sophomore Sally Clemmons led Melissa scorers again, this time with 24 points, as juniors Taylor Carney and Taylor Thomas rolled to double-digits as well — 14 for Carney, 12 for Thomas. Celina’s McKale Grant collected 24 points to lead the Lady Bobcats and teammate Annie Griffith added 13.

Melissa led by nine at halftime and fought off each Lady Bobcat rally-push the rest of the way.

“I’m just really proud of the way the kids performed overall,” Lady Cards head coach Heather Lane said. “We had to make some adjustments to try to slow McKale down. The girls listened real well and I’m just happy for them because we wanted to win district last year. We were 6-0 but then kind of had a couple of meltdowns. For them to be able to experience that this year is very rewarding. They put in a lot of hours, a lot of time.”

“We respected them, big-time,” Lane said of Celina. “We had to make sure that we tried to throw something at them that we hadn’t done recently. So we went back to a previous defense that we had run. We had two people, honestly, between McKale and the basket, because she’s such a great player and we respect her game.”

The defense Melissa went back to was the “Warrior,” a type of zone designed to keep two defenders between the ball and the basket.

“We run several different defenses because we’re so small and it’s hard for us to match up man-to-man with other teams,” Lane said. “It’s just one that we were saving for the second half of district play and just for the right time. And we felt like it was time tonight to go back to it.”

Celina, like Melissa, was already assured a playoff spot, but with the loss its chance to catch the Lady Cards was gone. Lady Bobcats head coach Eric Krepps said “execution on both ends” cost his team this night.

“We gave up some easy ones,” Krepps said. “We didn’t make some easy ones. We shot just over 50 percent from the free-throw line. So it was just a lot of things that contributed to it. … We would like to have this one back.”

Lauren Brown opened the fourth quarter with a driving layup to boost Melissa’s lead to 47-37. With five minutes left, the Lady Cards led, 54-43, after senior Krista Butterfield and Carney swished two free throws each. Twice down the stretch, Celina cut the lead to seven and twice Melissa answered with layups — first by Conlin, then by Carney.

“There at the end, when they’d make a run at us,” Lane said, “we’d just try to keep our kids calm inside. You want the clock to run as fast as possible. They were putting some pressure back on us. Some of our guards were in foul trouble. … I’m really proud of our guards for finishing strong and for the big girls for getting rebounds when we needed them at the end.”

With under a minute left and Melissa up, 63-54, Clemmons went to the line for a one-and-one. For the shots, Lane moved the other Lady Cards to the opposite end of the court. Celina’s players joined them.

“The Celina players had gotten frustrated,” Lane said, “so they ‘cheap-shotted’ Sally the one time and sandwiched her. I cannot get Natalie Conlin and Taylor Thomas and those girls hurt because I’ve got to have them next week and for the playoffs. So there’s no point.”

She noted the move was also so her players would not be tempted foul after a miss.

In the first quarter, Melissa leapt to a 6-0 lead before Celina got on the board with a Grant 3-pointer. The Lady Bobcats went on to tie it, 6-6, and four lead changes would follow before the frame ended with the Lady Cards up, 15-11. Melissa had gone up for good, 10-9, on a Clemmons layup and her 3, from just left of top-of-the-key, closed out the stanza.

Melissa pushed its lead to 17-11 to open the second quarter on Charley Lane’s layup off a no-look pass from Thomas. After Carney canned a deep-corner 3, the Lady Cards led, 22-16. Celina battled back to trail, 25-24, before Clemmons drove for a layup “and 1” from the line to make to 28-24. Things really went south for the Lady Bobcats in the half’s final minute, courtesy of Thomas and Conlin. Thomas tallied back-to-back steals resulting in a free throw and a bucket, followed by Conlin’s layup at the buzzer to give Melissa a 35-26 halftime edge.

— Rick Atkinson

Lady Cards dump Princeton, keep district mark perfect

Melissa’s Lady Cardinals pushed their district record to 8-0 on Tuesday, Jan. 31, with a 69-56 win over Princeton at Melissa High’s Bird Cage. Clemmons tallied a team-high 19 points for the Lady Cards, with Natalie Conlin adding 16 more. Thomas also hit double-digits for Melissa, with 15 points. Senior Lauren Brown collected five rebounds, tops for the Lady Cards, and Carney was next, with four.

Princeton’s Shelbi Cook totaled 27 points to lead all scorers this night as the Lady Panthers’ district mark fell to a third-place 5-3.

Melissa pulled away with a 23-16 second quarter and led, 38-31, at the break. Thomas also posted a team-high four assists in the win, with three steals, as Clemmons grabbed three steals as well.

Cards top Celina in OT, push into second place

CELINA – It’s not easy to win at Celina. It’s not easy to win on Senior Night at Celina. It’s not easy to win at Celina when you’re down 12 points in the third quarter. But Melissa’s Cardinals (4-3) did all three in taking a thrilling 67-63 overtime win over the Bobcats (3-4) on Friday, Feb. 3, and moving into three-way tie with Aubrey and Princeton for second place in District 11-4A.

Junior Cole McCraw and sophomor Matt Holloway teamed up to lead Cardinal scorers with 14 points each, and senior Taner Bigbee, with important minutes this night, added 11 for Melissa. Celina was led by freshman Karson Statsny, who poured in 29 points.

“I knew it would be tough,” Melissa head coach Eric Benton said. “I knew they’d be ready. They beat us pretty good at our place. … We wanted to make sure we got a split with these guys, because you just never know in this district what’s going to happen the next few nights. We certainly didn’t want for them to have the automatic tiebreaker, having beat us both times. … Now I think we’re a little bit more in control of our own destiny.”

“It’s about what I expected,” Celina head coach Bobby Statsny said. “We beat them at their place and I knew it was going to be a battle because they wanted to beat us back. … It was a good, hard-fought battle,” he said, adding, “We left a lot of points in the paint.”

In addition, the Bobcats hit only three of 16 shots from 3-point range.

Celina led, 25-24, at halftime then pulled away in the third with a 16-7 outburst that had a Bobcat win written all over it. But after a long struggle back, Melissa tied the game at 52 on Holloway’s sweet jumper with 50 seconds left in regulation — and there the score stayed locked till the clock showed zeroes.

In the four-minute overtime period, the Cards prevailed by a 15-11 margin, after opening up a 57-52 lead on a McCraw lay-up, two Bigbee free throws and one by sophomore Junior Castleberry. Celina fought back to within one, at 57-56, on Statsny’s steal and coast-to-coast drive for a layup. Then a layup “and 1” by Melissa’s freshman Kaedric Cobbs pushed the Cards’ lead back to 60-56 with 1:35 left to play.

When Celina was called for a foul on freshman Brendon Lewis with under 20 seconds left, frustration boiled over for Coach Statsny, who was “T’d- up”, evidently, for inappropriate repartee. Lewis coolly sank the first of a one-and-one and Melissa’s lead was an all-important four points, 65-61. Holloway’s ensuing technical-foul shots wouldn’t go, but the damage was done. With 10 remaining, Castleberry closed out the win with two more from the charity stripe.

Melissa’s comeback from 12 down in the third quarter started with McCraw’s put-back layup as the period-ending buzzer sounded. Castleberry opened the fourth with a stop-and-pop for two points and Holloway added three free throws. Then Brendon Lewis was fouled in Celina’s half-court, with an additional technical foul called on a Bobcat for what looked to be a physical transgression. Lewis sank the front-end of the one-and-one and Holloway came on to drain both technical-foul awards. When it was over, Melissa trailed, 42-38.

Minutes later, Bigbee’s steal and court-length drive for a layup pulled Melissa to within two points, at 47-45. After Celina responded with a bucket, Bigbee came right back with another layup to keep the deficit at two. The stage was soon set for Holloway’s game-tying shot that sent the game to overtime.

“Taner Bigbee came in and played great minutes for us,” Benton said. “We don’t have a lot of seniors and he’s one that stepped up big-time for us tonight. And really, that’s probably the story: Everybody stepped up in some way when things started not going great, when body language kind of started getting sour. Slowly but surely — a play here, a play there — and we started to believe a little bit. The fire kind of came back in our eyes, and I think Taner had a ton to do with that.”

With Celina’s lead hovering around eight to 10 points in the second half, the Cards missed seven of eight free-throw attempts. But with the pressure on late, Melissa’s crew was money from the line, as Castleberry, Cobbs, Bigbee, Holloway and Lewis combined to nail eight of nine tries.

The Cards did it this night still without starting post player junior Tre Homer, whom Benton confirmed is out for the season with a knee injury. Melissa has also been without the post presence of senior Gunnar Murphy, lost for the season in December due to injury.

— Rick Atkinson

Princeton clips Cards, moves into second place

Melissa’s Cardinals fell to Princeton, 64-57, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Bird Cage at Melissa High School. With the win, the Panthers moved into sole possession of second place in District 11-4A with a 4-2 record, as Melissa dropped to 3-3 and into a three-way jam for third with Celina and Aubrey.

The Cardinals’ Cobbs rolled to a game-high 19 points, with Brendon Lewis’ 10 points next for Melissa. Stevan Molina was tops in points for Princeton, with 15. Four other Panthers scored in double-digits. Princeton jumped out to an 18-13 lead after one quarter and boosted its advantage to 40-24 by halftime. The Cards would make a run in the third, but couldn’t sustain it.