NHS girls advance to South State

Published 12:19 am Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NATCHEZ — Natchez High and Petal played 36 minutes of basketball Monday night in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs, but it was 57 seconds in the fourth quarter that made the biggest difference in the outcome.

With 1:42 remaining in the game, Petal’s Demesha Leatherwood hit two free throws to cut Natchez’s lead to 54-51.

If there was going to be a time for the Lady Bulldogs to fold, this would be it. They had turned the ball over on the previous possession and their best player had fouled out two minutes before.

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However, the Lady Bulldogs calmly played keep away for almost a minute before guard Keosha Bradley dished it to a wide open Jasmine Belton for a lay-up with 45 seconds left that gave Natchez a five-point cushion in what eventually became a 59-52 victory.

“Sometimes you want to wring their necks and sometimes you want to squeeze and hug them to death,” Natchez High coach Sue Johnson said. “That was one of those times.”

Petal coach Tommy Edwards said he wanted his players to foul on that possession due to the Lady Bulldogs’ poor free throw shooting. (Natchez was only 13-for-28 from the line in the game).

However, his team didn’t get the message.

“We were trying to foul and just didn’t for whatever reason,” Edwards said. “Sometimes that happens. Give credit to coach Johnson and her team for a hard-fought victory.”

With the win, Natchez (21-8) moves into the Class 5A South State Tournament, where they will play Hattiesburg in the first round on Friday.

But the playoff victory wasn’t easy by any means. The Lady Bulldogs jumped out to a 15-2 lead in the first quarter, but foul trouble and a rebounding disadvantage hindered them all night.

Lady Bulldog post player Alia Frank was hampered with foul trouble all night long.

She scored eight points in the first quarter, but only two in the second and third quarters as she spent most of that time on the bench.

“I tried not to show it, but I was extremely frustrated,” Frank said of the foul trouble.

With Frank in and out of the game, Petal center Brianna Cherry had a huge second half.

The senior had only two points at halftime, but scored 17 in the second half to lead the Lady Panthers to a 41-37 lead early in the fourth quarter.

“She’s just a blue collar player,” Edwards said of Cherry. “She plays hard and always goes full tilt. She’s done that for four years.”

Frank returned at the beginning of the fourth quarter with four fouls and immediately made an impact.

With the Lady Bulldogs trailing by four points, Frank scored seven straight points for Natchez to bring them back to a tie game at 44 apiece with five minutes left.

That run seemed to spark the rest of the team, and after scoring just seven points in the third quarter, the Lady Bulldogs scored 22 in the fourth to pull away.

“We knew that this was it,” Johnson said. “We had to dig deep and give it all we had.”

Frank fouled out with 18 points with 3:21 remaining and Natchez up 51-46, but the Lady Bulldogs were able to expand that lead thanks to the play of others, especially bench players Susan Hamilton and Lamesha Anderson.

“Every night, somebody different steps up,” Johnson said. “Tonight was one person’s night, the next game it will be a different person.”

In addition to Frank’s 18 points, Natchez was led by Bradley with 17 and Belton with 11.

Cherry led Petal (20-5) with 19 points while Samantha Loving scored 14 in the loss.