By Ben Johnson
CNHI News Service
TAHLEQUAH — Tahlequah has had every reason to fold this season.
Starting guard Desiree Phipps went down with a season-ending knee injury in December. Starting center Jhonett Cookson transferred to another school in January. Starting shooting guard Randee O’Donnell went down with an ankle injury three days ago.
The Lady Tigers could have waived the white flag. No one would have thought any differently of them.
Yet, all that has brought the Lady Tigers closer together. That’s what made Saturday so satisfying for Class 5A No. 7 Tahlequah.
Forging on as they’ve done all year, the Lady Tigers captured a Class 5A regional tournament championship with a 68-63 victory over 5A No. 18 Chickasha. It’s Tahlequah first regional crown since 2001.
“I’m really proud of the girls; they came together,” Tahlequah coach Chad Walker said. “They were really feeding off of that and feeding off all the naysayers. I’m proud of them.”
Instead of just one player filling O’Donnell’s shoes, nearly every Tahlequah player that stepped on the floor elevated their games. None more than Marisa Girdner.
The 5-foot-5 junior guard finished with 19 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor and a 6-of-11 effort at the free-throw line.
“They had a hard time guarding her,” Walker said of Girdner.
Girdner did most of her damage in the second half after being tagged with her second foul at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. From that point on, she became a spectator until halftime.
“I was just really upset with myself because I got in foul trouble,” said Girdner, who also added five assists and four rebounds to her stat line. “And even before the game, (Walker) told me, ‘you can’t be in foul trouble.’
“I just felt like I had to make up for the time (that I missed) in the first half.”
She made good on that effort.
It was Girdner, in fact, who gave Tahlequah its biggest lead of the game in the fourth quarter. Following a missed 3-pointer by Alissa Hadley, Chickasha’s Taylor Sylvester rebounded the ball only to have Girdner rip it away. Girdner took a few strides toward the basket, put up a shot and made it while being fouled by Sylvester.
That put Tahlequah up 56-41 with 6:31 to play.
Chickasha (12-12) would cut Tahlequah’s lead to 10 less than a minute later, and that’s when Hadley came up her patent 3-pointer from the corner, which bumped the Lady Tigers’ lead back up to 13 (59-46).
“We were shooting at the beginning and I wasn’t hitting and that was going through my mind,” said Hadley, who finished with six points. “Then Marisa drove and passed to me, and I didn’t think much about it. It’s just kind of like a fourth-quarter thing: just block everything out and know that you’ll have to hit the shot.”
Chickasha’s area consolation opponent will be Edison, while Tahlequah will take on Memorial — who beat Edison on Saturday — for a spot in the Class 5A state tournament. Both games will be played Thursday at a site to be determined today.
“Three wins (in the playoffs) is what it takes,” Walker said of getting to the state tournament. “We’ll see what we can do.”