If Thursday night’s Southern Ohio Conference Division II opener was any indication, it is going to be an exciting year for the Waverly Lady Tigers.

The Lady Tiger put together a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the South Webster Lady Jeeps turning a 10-point deficit, 43-33, at the end of the third quarter into a three-point victory of 55-52 over the visitors.

In the final three minutes of regulation, Kami Knight and Zoiee Smith combined to score the final 10 points for the Lady Tigers with Knight delivering a crucial three-point play and triple to tie the game at 52-52 with less than a minute to go. Then Knight connected on a go-ahead free throw with 20.2 to play, 53-52. When South Webster tried to respond and retake the lead, WHS senior Hailey Robinson was able to get her hands on the ball for a tie-up with the possession arrow pointing in Waverly’s direction. Getting the inbound pass, Smith sprinted down the floor toward the Waverly bucket, drawing foul at midcourt with 16.2 to go. Then Smith drained both free throws to give Waverly the three-point advantage, 55-52. Waverly’s defense was up to the task of holding the Lady Jeeps at bay. Bri Claxon tried a long three over a Waverly defender that fell short, sealing the deal for the Lady Tigers.

Outsized inside, the Lady Tigers had work to do to keep themselves within striking distance from the very beginning of the contest. Knight started the scoring in the game by hitting the first triple. The Lady Jeeps countered with a pair of baskets before Robinson hit the next trey to make it a 6-4 lead for the Waverly Tigers. The Lady Jeeps fired back with a 7-0 burst, connecting on a pair of triples of their own to go up 12-6. Smith broke the drought for Waverly by driving and drawing a foul, sinking both of her shots to cut the lead to four, 12-8. At that point, the two teams battled through a string of turnovers. WHS sophomore Raelynn Dale provided a lift near the end of the quarter, connecting on a putback after a three-point attempt by Knight rimmed off. South Webster hit a final three to wrap up the scoring in the quarter, 15-10.

Battling South Webster’s size inside didn’t come without a cost, as the Lady Tigers found themselves in foul trouble. South Webster moved ahead by double digits to start the second quarter, outscoring Waverly 8-2. Freshman Lydia Brown provided a pair of free throws for the only WHS points, as South Webster moved ahead 23-12. Each team added seven points in the final four minutes of the half with Raelynn Dale and Sarah Thompson contributing to the scoring. Waverly was behind 30-19 at the break.

“It was a struggle in the first half. I looked over and had my starting five all with two fouls and my first sub on the bench,” said Waverly coach John Bonifield. “We had to rely on freshmen in Delaney (Tackett), Sarah (Thompson) and Lydia (Brown) to hold it together, until we could get everyone back in the second half. I thought they did a good job of keeping it at 11, until we could get our starters back into the game.”

Waverly came out of the locker room determined. The Lady Jeeps attempted to pull away, driving to an early 37-23 advantage. But Waverly wasn’t going to be deterred. Paige Carter broke the Waverly drought to begin the first run. Carter then came up with a steal, driving toward the basket before the Lady Jeeps knocked the ball out of her hands. However, Knight was there to secure it and drive to the basket for a layup, drawing a foul. She couldn’t get the free throw to fall, but the Lady Tigers weren’t going to be slowed. Brown came up with the next steal and fast break bucket, cutting the lead down to eight, 37-29.

Closing the third quarter, South Webster rallied for a 6-2 burst to go back up by 12, 43-31. The Lady Jeeps tried to go for the final shot of the quarter, but Waverly sophomore Maddy Collett made off with a steal and fired it to Smith for a layup at the buzzer, 43-33

South Webster increased its lead to double digits for the final time in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Knight was playing with four fouls, but she just kept working. Brown provided the first bucket of the fourth quarter for Waverly, sparking a 10-0 run by the Lady Tigers. Smith had the next two points from the line, 46-37, as physical play continued. After a three-point shot from Amelia Willis rimmed off, Dale fought for a rebound in the paint, and in the process was knocked to the floor. After Waverly took a timeout to regroup, Dale drained both of her free throws, cutting the South Webster lead down to seven.

“I think the game changer was when we finally got mad. We were tired of getting bullied around. It started with Rae-Rae (Raelynn Dale),” said Bonifield. “When Rae hit the floor, it gave us something to rally around. Rae got upset, and she is an emotional player. I called a timeout to get her calmed down. I think we finally rallied together. That gave us something to make us realize we can win this ball game. That changed the whole momentum. We started being more aggressive and assertive on both ends.”

Next was another free throw opportunity from Knight, who hit the second of two. Then Robinson connected on another three-pointer, trimming South Webster’s lead down to three, 46-43. Waverly’s confidence continued to grow.

South Webster increased the lead to five for a final time when Maddie Cook broke her team’s drought. Zoiee Smith came driving right back to hit for the Lady Tigers. Then after a South Webster miss, Knight had her chance to tie the game. Knight drove to the basket with defenders closing. She hit the layup, drawing the foul and hitting the free throw to complete the ‘and-one’ play. that brought the game to a 48-48 tie. Cook put the Lady Jeeps in front again, 50-48, before Smith drew another foul. Smith hit the second of two shots before Claxon added another bucket for the Lady Jeeps, giving them the 52-49 edge.

Once again, Knight had an answer, firing up a three-point shot that swished through the net, tying the game at 52-52. After a South Webster miss and a Waverly defensive rebound, Knight had the opportunity to add points from the line. She missed the first attempt, but she came back to get the second. Then Robinson forced the defensive tie-up, giving Waverly another possession. Smith was able to drive and draw a foul, adding the two final free throws to give the Lady Tigers the 55-52 win.

Knight, who played as a guard and in the post during Thursday night’s game, is going to be used everywhere this season.

“Kami struggled a little last year because we put her in a new position (in the post after being a guard). She is such an athletic person who can play all five spots for us. Now I think she is getting more comfortable playing in the post or out in the perimeter as the off-guard or small forward,” said Bonifield.

“Kami had great scrimmages, probably the best I’ve seen her play. It was great to see her step up in the second half. That’s what you want from your senior leader. We are happy to have Kami. She means the world to our team.”

Knight finished with 13 points, eight of which came in the fourth quarter. She talked about what the come-from-behind win meant.

“At halftime, coach got us all hyped up. I gave a little speech about how we need to come out like it was 0-0 again, give 120 percent, give all we can, and keep our hands to ourselves (no fouling),” said Knight.

“I hit the three and that got me pumped up. Then I hit the ‘and-one’ and got more pumped up. I was a little off on my free throws tonight. I just really wanted to win this game,” said Knight. “This is gold ball season. We want to win the SOC and this is a big game to open our season with.”

Cook finished with 17 points to lead South Webster.

“We know Cook is one of the best players in the league,” said Bonifield. “She shoots and passes well. You always have to know where she is at all times.”

Smith finished with 19 points to lead all scorers. She also handed out four assists. Carter provided seven rebounds, while Robinson and Collett each added two steals.

“Kami led the way. Zoiee stepped up when we needed her to. They are our go-to players,” said Bonifield. “Paige will get there, too. She had a tough game and couldn’t get anything to fall. It is a new system (for her), and she is still learning it.”

Knight was extremely thrilled with the effort of her team.

“We came out and gave it our all. That’s what we need from everyone,” said Knight. “We have high expectations. Now we are preparing for all of the rest of the teams.”

The Lady Tigers will travel to Northwest Monday for a 6 p.m. contest before returning home to face Valley on Thursday evening at 6 p.m.

SWHS - 15 15 13 9 - 52

WHS - 10 9 14 22 - 55

SOUTH WEBSTER (52) — Karli Montgomery 0 1 0-0 3, Rose Stephens 1 0 0-0 2, Bailey Cox 4 1 0-0 11, Bri Claxon 1 0 0-0 2, Maddie Cook 5 2 1-4 17, Taylor Rawlins 1 0 3-4 5, Kenzie Hornikel 0 1 3-6 6, Faith Maloney 2 0 0-0 4, Kelsie Montgomery 0 0 0-0 0, TOTALS 15 5 7-14 52.

WAVERLY (55) — Kami Knight 2 2 3-8 13, Maddy Collett 0 0 0-0 0, Zoiee Smith 5 0 9-14 19, Hailey Robinson 0 2 0-0 6, Paige Carter 1 0 0-0 2, Lydia Brown 2 0 2-2 6, Delaney Tackett 0 0 0-0 0, Sarah Thompson 1 0 0-0 2, Raelynn Dale 1 0 5-6 7, Amelia Willis 0 0 0-0 0, TOTALS 12 4 19-30 55.

Email at jbillings@newswatchman.com; follow on Twitter @ Julie_Billings

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