MONTGOMERY — The Opelika Lady Bulldogs found themselves in a tie game with 6:19 left in the fourth quarter Friday during the Class 6A Southeast Regional Semifinals. Despite the nerve-wracking situation, the Lady Bulldogs made all the right moves in the final minutes to punch their ticket to the next round.
Opelika finished strong against Eufaula, as the Lady Bulldogs overpowered the Lady Tigers with the game on the line and didn’t allow a single point in the final two minutes and 55 seconds of a 61-48 victory. The win for Opelika came despite an outstanding performance by Eufaula’s Kaitlin Peterson, who finished the afternoon with 38 points.
As a result, Opelika (26-6) advances to the regional finals, where it will face Dothan on Tuesday.
“We just stepped up and made some plays defensively. I didn’t think we were rebounding very well, and they got a ton of offensive rebounds. I thought we did a better job of that in the last six minutes,” Opelika coach Devin Booth said. “We started finishing some baskets. We made some free throws. We just did some of the little things that we hadn’t been doing the whole game.”
With the game up for grabs late, the Lady Bulldogs worked tirelessly to make sure the final result swung in their favor.
After Kaitlyn Bryant broke the tie by hitting the first of two free throws, La’Dajah Huguley connected with Haley Sanders under the basket on a spot-on assist to give Opelika a 44-41 lead with 5:23 to go. Huguley immediately came back with a defensive steal and drew a foul that sent her to the line, where she hit the front-end of her two shots to create a four-point Opelika lead.
On the next Opelika possession, Bryant somehow wiggled her way around a Eufaula defender and dropped a layup to give the Lady Bulldogs a six-point advantage as part of a 7-0 scoring run.
Peterson had been a thorn in Opelika’s side all day. Despite the Lady Bulldogs’ string of big plays, she wasn’t giving in just yet.
Once Zahria Hoskey and Haley Sanders traded layups to create a 49-43 contest with 3:21 to go, Peterson drew a foul and hit both free throws to shrink the Lady Bulldogs’ lead to four. Sanders answered with a layup off an assist by Ananda Hughley before Peterson came right back with a 3-pointer to make the score 51-48 with 2:55 to go.
Peterson’s shot could have sent a shockwave through an Opelika bench that had watched the junior make countless plays against them. Instead, the entire team buckled down to finish the job.
As quickly as Peterson had gotten Eufaula (25-7) back in the mix, Opelika slammed the door shut on a potential comeback.
Bryant nailed the first of two free throws to put her side up 52-48 with 2:47 on the clock, and nearly 20 seconds later she hit another free throw to create a five-point difference. Opelika locked down on Peterson and left her teammates scrambling as they failed to hit any shots, and after a defensive rebound Claire Worth stepped up and drilled a 3-pointer to put Opelika up 56-48 with 1:50 left in the fourth.
From Worth’s long shot on, all that was left was desperate fouling from Eufaula. Opelika tacked on five more free throws courtesy Bryant, Huguley and Hughley before the final horn sounded.
Sanders led the way for Opelika with 19 points along with eight rebounds and three steals. Bryant had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Worth ended up with eight points, 15 rebounds and five assists.
Peterson was the game’s leading scorer and had seven of her 38 points in the final quarter. It became apparent quickly that Opelika had to limit Peterson, and the fact the rest of the Eufaula team shot 4-of-51 from the floor spoke to how crucial she was for her team’s hopes.
“She’s just a great player. She gets to the basket. She’s really, really fast, and she doesn’t miss around the basket. She can also shoot the 3, which is tough when you’re trying to stop her,” Booth said. “At the beginning of the game, we just didn’t do a good job of stepping up and stopping her. She put her team on her back and tried to get them there. I thought we did a better job of trapping and making her get rid of it and not letting her get it back.”
The Lady Bulldogs now turn their attention to Dothan, a team that Opelika beat by 13 in November but enters Tuesday’s contest with a nine-game win streak. For Booth, the key is to not make the moment bigger than it is and for her players to do what has worked all season.
“We’ve just been taking it one game at a time,” Booth said. “We’ve been stressing the small things all year — boxing out, rebounding and taking care of the ball. Those are things that we’ve just got to keep working on and keep getting better at.”