SHENANDOAH JUNCTION — One minute, Jefferson girls basketball coach Damon Smith was furious. The next minute, he was jubilant.
That was the kind of game the Cougars were in against Spring Mills on Wednesday in the Class AAAA, Region II co-championship game.
Jefferson saw an early lead grow to 14 points, then shrink down to as little as four in the third quarter before it pulled away from the Cardinals the rest of the way for a long-awaited, 47-34 win, earning it the regional co-championship.
With the win, the Cougars (12-0) punched their ticket to that long-elusive trip to Charleston’s Civic Center for the WVSSAC tournament, which begins Thursday night. Jefferson’s girls haven’t been to the state tournament since the 2009 season.
The Cougars are the seventh-seed in the eight-team field. They will play second-seeded Cabell Midland (13-1) at 1 p.m., on Thursday, in a quarterfinal-round game.
A win would put Jefferson into a 5:30 p.m. semifinal game on Friday against the Huntington-Martinsburg winner. The championship game is set for 8 p.m. Saturday.
“Yes, I was actually thinking about that game last year,” Smith said, referring to last year’s co-championship game with Martinsburg, where the Bulldogs held on for the win, denying the Cougars’ bid to advance to Charleston. He recalled how that game got away from Jefferson.
So when the Cardinals cut Jefferson’s lead to four in the third quarter, Smith quickly called for a full, 60-second, time out. He didn’t waste any time giving his team an earful in the huddle.
The Cougars were not playing well at all.
“We weren’t being ourselves, not going after the ball, being aggressive,” Smith said. “I didn’t want that kind of a team to stick around. Things had to change in a hurry.”
Coming back onto the floor after the timeout, Jefferson was back to its usual self, playing up-tempo, in-your-face basketball. Thanks to a pair of quick steals and a pair of buckets from Heaven Murray, augmented by a steal and a transition basket from teammate Jordan Carr, the Cougars took back the game’s momentum, leading by as much as 16 points down the stretch.
Jefferson had opened up a 12-4 lead on Spring Mills in the opening quarter, but struggled in the second quarter, watching its lead shrink to six at the half, 26-20.
The team’s lackluster play was the topic of discussion in the locker room at halftime.
“We just needed to play better defense,” Carr said. “We needed to go after the ball, get the rebounds, getting big stops at the end.”
Macie Chrisman, Jefferson’s senior post player, playing her final home high school basketball game, agreed with what was said, both at halftime and during that crucial third-quarter timeout.
Unless there was a change in the team’s play soon, the trip to Charleston was going to elude the Cougars once again.
She finished with a double-double, leading the team in scoring (12 points) and rebounds (11). Chrisman also knocked away a few balls from the hands of Spring Mills defenders, directing them to other teammates underneath the Cardinals’ hoop.
“I think we were just playing nervous, a little tight earlier,” Chrisman said.
She said the team might have been thinking every little thing was a do-or-die situation.
With that kind of mindset, the Cougars ended up being over-cautious, which resulted in sub-par play and unforced errors.
Once Jefferson began treating this game like any other, the play improved dramatically.
“We started playing much, much better,” Chrisman said. She also played the latter portion of the game with four fouls, but at this point, it didn’t matter to Chrisman. She had work to do.
“It was my last home game, just go out there, leave everything out on the floor,” Chrisman said.
Carr finished with 11 points and six rebounds. Murray had eight points.
“This win was special,” Murray said, but she still remembered just how close this game came to slipping away — again.
“Coach told us at halftime we weren’t playing any defense, we were taking this game for granted,” Murray said. “We thought it was going to be easy this time, but we picked it up in the second half, played tough man-to-man defense and came back.”
Catrina Myers added seven points for Jefferson.
Following Wednesday’s game, the team and its coaches enjoyed something it hadn’t been able to do since 2009 — cut down the nets for a regional crown.