SUMTER -- After its deepest postseason run in 18 seasons, Thomas Heyward Academy's girls basketball team came up just short Saturday in its bid for a SCISAA Class 2-A state championship, falling 50-41 to defending champion Bible Baptist School at the Sumter County Exhibition Center.
That it concluded with a loss to the Braves seemed a fitting end for the Rebels' best season in recent memory. Saturday marked the third meeting this season between the SCISAA Region 1-AA rivals, with Bible Baptist taking the first two by scores of 55-50 on Jan. 18 in Ridgeland and 42-35 on Jan. 27 in Savannah. Thomas Heyward had won nine straight since the loss in Savannah.
Early on, it seemed the third meeting might be charmed for Thomas Heyward.
The Rebels (21-6) reeled off a 12-0 run to take a 20-14 lead with 6:03 left in the first half, but the Braves answered with an 8-2 run to tie it at 22 at halftime. Ariel Martinez had 13 of her game-high 18 by halftime for Bible Baptist while Caitlyn Cooler had eight, including two 3-pointers, to lead the Rebels at the break.
The lead changed hands four times in the third period, with neither team leading by more than three, but the Braves' balance helped them put away their second consecutive title.
Even though Bible Baptist was making its third consecutive SCISAA Class 2-A title game appearance, splitting games with Thomas Sumter Academy over the past two seasons, Thomas Heyward coach Gary Mazzanna didn't feel his team's relative lack of playoff experience was the problem Saturday.
"I don't think it was so much their (playoff) experience in that game as it was our lack of depth," Mazzanna said. "One of our starters, one of our leading scorers (Kayla Canavan) had a stomach virus that she just picked up this morning, and she was very limited with what she could do and how long she could go, and that hurt us a lot. I think that was pretty much the difference in the game, their depth and our lack of depth."
The Rebels also ran into foul trouble, as Taylor Ernestine fouled out with 5:46 left, Cooler picked up her third foul late in the third and was whistled for her fifth in the game's final seconds and Jamie Malphrus ended with four after two late fouls when Thomas Heyward had to send the Braves to the line.
Sending Bible Baptist to the free-throw line proved to be a good game plan, as the Braves were an uncharacteristic 9 of 24 from the line, including 5 for 14 in the first half.
Still, the Rebels couldn't close the gap down the stretch.
The Braves (28-3) led by four, 39-35, before a Martinez bucket stretched it to six with 4:14 remaining. Two quick Thomas Heyward baskets had it back down to two with 3:35 left, but that would be the closest the Rebels would get.
Mazzanna said the key might have been a sequence after his team cut the lead to two but lost the ball when an official's call was overturned. From there, Bible Baptist quickly went back up by seven, and the Rebels never recovered.
"That really took the wind out of our sails, because we had to work so hard to get back," Mazzanna said. "Even though you're talking like four or six points, it's just so much to get to that point again. You have to work so hard, you really do."
Malphrus finished with 13 to lead the Rebels, and Cooler added 12. Lyndsey Conley scored 11, and Olivia Harrell had 10 for the Braves.
While the Rebels came up short this time in their championship bid, expectations should be high next year with all of this year's team returning.
"We started three sophomores and two juniors, and then came off the bench with a junior and two sophomores," Mazzanna said. "So we're in good shape. One of our girls, a sophomore (Chandler Cook), had to come off the bench and get a lot of minutes in pressure situations and she responded pretty well. That (experience) will carry over into next year. I'm happy with the team, happy with the girls and really proud of them."
Bible Baptist 50, Thomas Heyward 41
THOMAS HEYWARD 10 12 9 10 -- 41
BIBLE BAPTIST 14 8 11 17 -- 50
THOMAS HEYWARD (21-6) -- Jamie Malphrus 13, Caitlyn Cooler 12, Kayla Canavan 8, Brielle Jungblut 4, Taylor Ernestine 2, Chandler Cook 2.
BIBLE BAPTIST (28-3) -- Ariel Martinez 18, Lyndsey Conley 11, Olivia Harrell 10, Shacora Green 4, Tayler Helm 4, Casey Rigdon 3.