Saunders’ HS career ends with OT win over Salem
Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]
North Harrison High School seemed abuzz with a jovial atmosphere Thursday night as the Lady Cats hosted Mid-Southern Conference rival Salem. The pep band played Christmas songs, while the student section was decked out in festive attire. However, amid the holiday atmosphere, there was a slight bit of melancholy in the air.
That air surrounded senior guard Ali Saunders, who laced up her sneakers as a Lady Cat one last time before her scheduled early graduation and move to Valparaiso University for the spring semester.
In her high school swan song, Saunders delivered in the final act as she gave an early Christmas gift — a last-second layup — to give the Lady Cats a 55-54 overtime victory.
“I was determined to not let my team down tonight,” Saunders said. “Salem’s an amazing team to beat anywhere, here or (at Salem). They have one of the best coaching staffs we’ve ever run into; it’s an amazing program and they’re always hard to beat, so it was a really good win for us.”
“We knew this would be a tough game,” Lady Cats’ skipper Jamie Kolkmeier said. “Salem’s lost a lot of players the last couple of years, but they have a lot of good returning players. They might execute as well as any team in our league.”
Long before Saunders’ game-winner, she struck the opening salvo when she drained a three-pointer about three or four steps in front of the half-court line. Points were hard to come by for both sides as the Lady Lions had a free throw from Abigail Ratts followed by a pair of triples from Macie Tomlinson. The Lady Cats countered with buckets from senior wing Diana Burgher and senior forward Emma Robertson before the quarter concluded with a 7-7 tie.
The second quarter began with both sides struggling to find the bottom of the net in the first two minutes. The Lady Lions subsequently took the lead on a 5-0 run before Kolkmeier called a timeout. While the Lady Cats managed to get their offense going with eight points, including consecutive Burgher long balls, the Lady Lions kept a multi-possession distance for most of the period.
That distance was powered mostly by a three-point barrage with triples from Kendall Hickey, Natalie Dean, Tomlinson and Natalie Noel, who led the Lady Lions in the period with five points. Ratts added another bucket, but the Lady Cats used a bucket from Molly Coomer and a Saunders three a few seconds before the buzzer to cut the Lady Lions’ half-time advantage to one, 23-22.
“We were a little slow in the first quarter moving the ball around, then Ali kick-started us and Diana got into a groove,” Kolkmeier said. “We wanted to contest Tomlinson and Noel on the three, but we didn’t do a terrific job at that. We also had to try and keep Ratts off the boards.”
The second half began with both sides firing one shot after another. After notching only six points on a pair of threes in the first half, Saunders broke out to lead the Lady Cats with 13 points in the third quarter, alongside five points from Burgher and a bucket from Coomer. The Lady Lions countered with seven points from Ratts, five points from Noel, a pair of triples from Tomlinson and a three from Sidney Brown, giving the Lady Lions a 44-42 edge to conclude the period.
Despite Burgher opening the fourth quarter by tying the game with a close-range shot, the Lady Lions quickly retook the lead with a 6-0 run powered by a long three from Noel, a Ratts bucket and a freebie from Kaylea Klinglesmith. The 50-44 lead lasted for most of the latter minutes of the period before Coomer knocked down a three to cut it to a one-possession game. With just over a minute left, Burgher took it to the basket, drawing a foul before watching the ball fall through the net. She knocked down the subsequent free throw to complete the game-tying three-point play.
The final minute of the quarter was an exchange of turnovers, starting when a long pass by Saunders was intercepted. Following a timeout, the Lady Lions didn’t keep the ball for long as Burgher stole the ball, giving the Lady Cats the final possession despite the Lady Lions poking the ball out of bounds. Saunders fired off one last three at the buzzer but watched it bounce off the rim as her high school career was extended as the contest went into overtime, tied at 50.
“I thought our tenacity and effort were good; we just need to make sure we value some possessions a bit better,” Kolkmeier said. “I told them in a timeout, ‘Do you want to fight or hang your head?’ To their credit, I think they went out and scored that next possession.”
The first half of the extra period was mostly a scoreless duel, but the Lady Lions took the lead after Ratts knocked down four bonus free throws, the latter of which came off a foul as Burgher tried to steal the ball. Once the second set of foul shots went down, the Lady Lions had a 54-50 lead with about 29.5 seconds left.
Another intentional foul sent Brown to the line for a 1-and-1 but she missed the first freebie. Landing in the hands of Burgher, the ball soon found its way to the hands of junior guard Chloe Shewmaker. Shewmaker launched the ball, sending the players on the bench to their feet as it fell through to cut it to a one-possession game.
A quick intentional foul sent Ratts back to the line for another 1-and-1. As the ball bounced off the rim, Saunders began to run back. Upon recovering the rebound, the Lady Cats got the ball to Saunders, who whipped the Ramsey crowd into a frenzy as her layup found the bottom of the net, giving the Lady Cats a 55-54 lead with 2.2 seconds remaining.
The Lady Cats’ defense was just enough to prevent the Lady Lions’ final shot from reaching the net, bouncing off the right side of the rim to seal the Lady Cats’ one-point victory.
“In big possessions like that, I know I need to score,” Saunders said. “My team relies on me to do that and I’ve taken that responsibility, so I knew that I was either going to draw the foul or get the layup.”
The Lady Lions had three players score in double figures: Ratts 16, Tomlinson 15 and Noel 13.
Burgher led the way for the Lady Cats with 22 points, 12 of which came from beyond the arc. Saunders finished her high school career with 21 points, including her final three three-pointers.
Saunders hugged teammates with tears in her eyes as she tried to enjoy the moment as much as she could.
“The girls mean so much to me because we’ve been playing together since second grade. Us five seniors have been in it together since day one,” Saunders said. “It’s tough leaving. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure leaving my team out here like this. They made it easier for me; they made it feel like it was OK for me to go. This isn’t the end. I’ll try to come back and catch games and keep in touch.”
The Lady Cats began the post-Saunders era yesterday (Tuesday) when they hosted Floyd Central. Their next set of games will take them to Seymour, starting when they play Trinity Lutheran tomorrow at 3 p.m. After New Years’ festivities, they’ll return on Saturday, Jan. 8, to play Seymour at 1:30 p.m.
Salem – 7 16 21 6 4 – 54
North Harrison – 7 15 20 8 5 – 55
Salem (6-4, 2-2 MSC) – Ratts 16, Tomlinson 15, Noel 13, Brown 3, Dean 3, Hickey 3, Klinglesmith 1.
North Harrison (9-4, 3-2 MSC) – Burgher 22, Saunders 21, Coomer 7, Shewmaker 3 Robertson 2.
3-point goals – Salem 11 (Tomlinson 5, Noel 3, Brown 1, Dean 1, Hickey 1); North Harrison 9 (Saunders 4, Burgher 3, Coomer 1, Shewmaker 1).