By TOMMY R. ATKINSON
The Charleston Gazette
Princeton’s McKenzie Akers knew something had to change after halftime Tuesday night or she and the seven other seniors would never realize their dream.
The Tigers shifted gears into overdrive in the second half en route to a 71-66 victory over host George Washington in the Class AAA Region 3 girls basketball co-final.
Princeton (19-5), No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll, will advance to the state tournament for the first time in four years March 6-9 at the Charleston Civic Center. The seeds will be unveiled on Friday.
The other Region 3 co-final, Capital at Greenbrier East, was postponed until Thursday, which will hold up the seeding process.
The No. 9 Patriots (16-9) had won their regional co-final on their home court the past two seasons.
Princeton trailed 40-33 at the break then outscored GW 38-26 in the second half, holding the Patriots to eight points in the third quarter.
Akers poured in a game-high 33 points on 11-of-22 shooting and converted 9 of 11 free-throw attempts. The MSAC’s leading scorer pumped in 20 points after the break.
“We went in at halftime and knew [GW] had beat us the first two quarters,” said Akers. “We knew the post was killing us and we needed to box out since we’re so small. We knew we could run on them so we needed to push up the tempo a little bit.”
The focus on rebounding was huge in the final 44.1 seconds as Princeton missed two foul shots but senior guard Marissa Mullins and senior post Khadijah Payne secured the rebounds as the Tigers were clinging to two- and three-point leads, respectively.
After Payne’s carom, Tigers senior guard Jessica Inman was fouled and made 1 of 2 to push the margin to 68-64 with 37.7 seconds left.
“That’s where you’ve got to want it more than the other person,” said GW coach Jamie LaMaster. “[Princeton’s] seniors just weren’t going to be denied. They showed what a regional championship team looks like.”
Akers made a pair from the charity stripe for a four-point advantage, 70-66 with 19.5 seconds to go.
Patriots senior guard Rachel Ward, who finished 1 of 8 on 3-pointers, put up a long range shot that hit off the front of the rim. Payne gathered the loose ball and was fouled with 11.1 seconds to go. Payne missed the first but made the second to set the final score.
“I’m just so happy,” said Akers. “We’ve dedicated our life to basketball. To get this accomplishment means everything.”
Mullins netted 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting with six rebounds and Inman chipped in nine points. Payne pulled down 10 rebounds to go along with six points.
“We had to come out and do something different,” said Princeton coach Debbie Ball, whose team lost in the section championship game last week.
“[GW] was killing us inside. In the second quarter I changed up the defense and wasn’t real sure about it. [Our players] just came out [in the third quarter], knew they were behind and had to play harder. I could tell they were coming to play.”
GW’s Kelli Jo Harrison, who surpassed 1,000 career points, turned in 30 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Ward, the Patriots’ top scorer at 17.9 points per game, and Hailey Stewart added 12 points apiece.
“Breakdowns on defense,” LaMaster said of his team’s woes in the second half. “You’ve got to play hard for 32 minutes and we didn’t do that.”
The teams battled back and forth in the third and fourth quarters. Princeton ran off nine straight points to knot the game at 42 in the third quarter. Mullins’ putback gave the Tigers a 49-48 edge heading into the fourth.
Inman nailed a 3-pointer to start the final quarter. The Patriots forged ties at 54-54 and 56-all, but Akers answered with two from the foul line to take the advantage for good at 58-56 with 5:08 to go.
Jessica Inman 4-11 1-3 11, McKenzie Akers 11-22 9-11 33, Marissa Mullins 6-12 3-4 18, Khadija Payne 2-5 2-4 6, Hannah Preservati 1-7 0-1 3, Rachel Surface 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-59 15-23 73.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (15-9)
Stewart 3-7 4-4 12, Harrison 10-20 10-13 30, Ward 5-13 1-1 12, Mobayed 2-6 0-0 4, Gilmore 1-6 4-6 6, Ash 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-57 19-24 66.
Princeton.....................19 14 16 24 — 73
G. Washington.............20 20 8 18 — 66
Three-point goals — PSHS 8 (Inman 2, Akers 2, Mullins 3, Preservati 1); GW 3 (Stewart 2, Ward 1). Total fouls — PSHS 15, GW 22. Fouled out — Mobayed.