LUBBOCK, Texas — A few unfortunate bounces and missed shots can end a great run. It doesn't matter if that run spans a particular game or an entire season.
Monday, they ended both for No. 24 Three Rivers.
No. 9 Jones County had its largest lead of the game at 15 points with 8:10 remaining in the first round of the NJCAA Tournament. Then, sophomore Hailee Erickson put forth a Herculean effort out of determination to not let Monday be her final game with the Lady Raiders.
After redshirt freshman Deanay Watson split a pair of free throws with 6:18 left, Erickson erupted and scored 15 straight points for Three Rivers. She nailed a 3 with no hesitation with 5:10 remaining, and on the next possession she followed her own miss for a layup off of an offensive rebound to pull Three Rivers within six points.
"That was awesome," sophomore Kim Shaw said. "We needed it. I really did (think they were going to come back). She made some shots that we needed. And I thought J'Kayla (Fowler) at the top of the press stole the ball and got a few layups, which was good. Deanay came up, stepped up. An'Nyah (Pettus) when she came in, she scored every single time. Everybody stepped up, so we needed someone to do it, and Hailee being a sophomore, it was good."
Keyara Jones came away with back-to-back steals for layups at the other end of the floor to quickly build the lead back to 10, stunning the Lady Raiders. Kyia Weathersby effectively used her 6-foot, 3-inch frame to post up and make a layup to give her team a 12-point lead.
Erickson responded, though, banking in a contested 3 on the wing in front of the Three Rivers bench. She soon followed it up with another 3. Jones came back on the other end with a mid-range jumper for two of her 24 points.
Again, Erickson came up big, taking the ball hard to the basket and drawing a foul. The 83 percent free-throw shooter sank both, and it was again a six-point game. She then got it done on the defensive end with a steal before drawing a foul. She hit both free throws.
"At the beginning, I made a couple 3's, and there for a little bit it was like I just couldn't get any of them to go in, and (her teammates) were just (saying), 'Keep shooting. Keep shooting.' Keeping me confident. Then, in the game when I started hitting those, they kept getting me the ball and moving the ball getting me good shots and I was able to make them."
She wasn't done there. She got another steal, but this time, her 3-pointer bounced around every part of the rim before slowly rolling out. Weathersby again worked from the post, scoring the final two of her 24 points with a layup.
Jordan Little responded with a huge 3 to pull the Lady Raiders within three points. Three Rivers forced a turnover with 37 seconds left to get the ball back, but Erickson couldn't get a shot to drop with her defender draped all over her with around 20 seconds to go.
She tried to slide over and draw a charge but was whistled for a block, fouling out in the process. The Bobcats missed both free throws, breathing life back into Three Rivers. After working the ball around, Hannah Thurmon got a relatively open look with a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds left, but it bounced off the rim. A free throw from the Bobcats wrapped up the game, ending Three Rivers' season with an 88-84 loss, its first defeat since Nov. 30 and its only loss of the season away from home.
"We just needed two more minutes," Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. "Just needed two more minutes, and unfortunately you don't have them this time of year. In that second quarter and at the start of the game, it's not necessarily what we didn't do, it's what they did to us. We still had chances to win. We were trying to drive in there and get some fouls on (Weathersby), and they weren't calling them. Whether they were fouls or not, who knows. This time of year, they never seem to call any of them."
Erickson finished her final game with 29 points — one shy of her season high — on a 6-of-14 clip from 3-point range in 37 minutes.
In the first half, it looked like Three Rivers (27-4) had a shot at running away with the game.
Watson scored the first six points of the day for Three Rivers, two of which came from jump shots, something she hadn't begun to utilize until late in the season. She also knocked down her second 3-pointer of the season on her way to her ninth double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds on 5 of 10 from the floor in 27 minutes.
The shots were falling and the Lady Raiders were turning the game into a track meet, playing the way they'd preferred to play all season long. Players were leaking out in transition for wide-open layups after getting stops, and the defense wasn't allowing the Bobcats (28-2) to utilize their size advantage.
The result was a 27-9 run that carried over into the second quarter. Erickson sparked it with a pull-up 3 from the wing about halfway through the first quarter. Pettus was giving Three Rivers big minutes off the bench in her return from a knee injury that forced her to miss four games. She added to the run with an and-one on a putback and a layup courtesy of an assist from Erickson. Pettus tallied 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting in 11 minutes in her return.
"I feel like we were making all of our shots and being really confident with the ball and how we were doing things and our plays and stuff," redshirt sophomore Casey Douglas said.
Back-to-back 3s from Thurmon capped the run two minutes into the second quarter. Thurmon finished her season with her second double-double, totaling 13 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes.
"Shots were going down and we were able to get into our rhythm on offense," Walk said. "(The Bobcats) called a couple timeouts and got their kids settled down. The rhythm changed and they were able to slow us down."
The Bobcats weathered the storm, slowed the pace and shot efficiently to erase the deficit and eventually build its 15-point lead. Both teams entered halftime shooting 51 percent, but the Bobcats sustained that number while Three Rivers fell to 40.8 percent by game's end. Jones shot 10 of 22, Weathersby made 10 of her 12 attempts to go along with nine rebounds and three blocks, and Destiny Hamer scored 16 points with a 6-of-12 day from the floor.
"(Weathersby) was definitely the biggest we've played against, and she was really good," Douglas said. "I think we struggled a bit blocking out, and then there were times when we got down and we blocked her out and were getting more rebounds."
The Lady Raiders finished minus-six (41 to 35) on the glass in the game, a rarity for a team that had a plus-6.6 average margin this season.
Down the stretch, foul trouble hurt Three Rivers. In addition to Erickson fouling out in crunch time, Shaw and Little both had four fouls, and Katelyn South had three, throwing each of them out of rhythm as they shot a combined 2 of 20 from the field. Those four players in foul trouble had more fouls than the entire Bobcats' roster.
Even with the loss, this season will be remembered as one of the three most successful in the program's history and its most successful campaign since 2004 when the Lady Raiders finished fifth in the national tournament.
"You just have to enjoy the moment," Walk said. "Granted, this one sucks, losing like you did. Late in the year, no one wants to lose, but effort was there all the way through. Looking back on the season, just how well the kids came together from day one. How they interacted and how they came into practice every day ready to get after it and do what it took to get here.
"You just don't start in a game where you say we're going to the national tournament, you know, that's something you start the first day of class. These kids bought into that and believed in that, and they're winners."
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic