The shots weren’t falling for most of the night for Caroline Combs. The Tipton senior point guard clanged a couple of 3-pointers off the front iron, missed short on a runner in the lane once and threw up an air ball.
But with 3.8 seconds left in the Kaysinger Conference girls basketball tournament championship game, she hit a layup to send Tipton home with a 40-38 win over Windsor on Thursday, and with it, the Cardinals’ first Kaysinger tournament championship.
“The last play was supposed to go to Ashton (Pace) for the 3-point shot or go into Jessica (Petree),” Combs said. “Somehow that broke down and I got the ball back. The first thing I saw was the basket and I just knew. My dad always taught me when I was younger, you go to the basket in the last second of the game, you don’t stop. So what I did was go to the basket and I had an open lane.”
After the basket by Combs, Windsor had one last chance to get off a shot to tie the game, but the Cardinals’ defense prevented Jessica Neel from getting a good look at the basket before the final buzzer.
The loss is the second in a row in the tournament championship game for the Lady Greyhounds, who won this tournament in 2012. Sacred Heart beat the Lady Greyhounds in last year’s final with a press that caused turnovers. On Thursday, Tipton pressed at times, too, and Windsor turned the ball over 21 times.
“We just didn’t handle the ball very well at times,” said Windsor coach Brad Forrest.
Shelby Williams scored 20 points for the Lady Greyhounds, including back-to-back baskets to give Windsor a 10-point lead midway through the third.
“She played big in the post, just like I knew she would,” Forrest said. “It’s just nobody else was able to knock down a shot when we needed it.”
When the teams met in the regular season, Bailey Rollins held Combs to two points. On Thursday, a combination of Combs and sophomore guard Destiny Dowell returned the favor, holding Rollins to four.
“(We were) just trying to keep her in front of us,” said Tipton coach Jason Culpepper. “She’s extremely tough to keep in front of us. She’s relentless at not letting you let your guard down. She stays facing the basket all the time. She does a great job of keeping our defense paying attention at all times. We were able to stay on task and keep her in front of us enough times.”
Combs finished with 10 points, all of her scoring coming on layups on a night when her jump shot was failing her.
“I was just trying to dig down deep and remember all my basics,” she said. “I was trying to go back to all my shot techniques, and if I couldn’t figure it out, then I knew first look for the shot, and if it wasn’t there, I would look for Jessica, Destiny, Pace, anyone I knew. I had more confidence in my players at that point.”
It’s the first Kaysinger Conference tournament championship for Tipton, a program that won just five games in 2012. It was after that season that Culpepper came in, meeting with the team the day he got the job and telling them that they would win games because they would outwork other teams.
“Last year, getting them to have that complete mindset of we are good enough to be a champion was tough,” Culpepper said. “It took the whole year to get them to feel like we could win this thing. This year, we started out by winning our Tipton tournament. We know we have a good team and we have confidence.”
Last year, Tipton’s first under Culpepper, the Cardinals went 13-12 and took third place in the Kaysinger tournament with a 61-41 win over Stover.
“Having played with the girls since junior high and getting a new coach last year, he worked with us real hard so we could get better,” Petree said.
The five-win season was the sophomore year for Combs and Jessica Petree. Now, in the midst of a 15-5 season and the program’s first Kaysinger title, the success doesn’t quite seem real yet.
“It’s kind of that overwhelming feeling of ‘did that really happen or is this still a dream,’ ” Combs said. “We really just made school history for ourselves. We got more confidence in ourselves. We had to build up the team from the bottom. Our freshman year, it was OK but our sophomore year we bottomed out. We really hit rock bottom, but we knew we had to step it up.”
Windsor jumped out to a 7-0 lead before Dowell hit a 3-pointer to get Tipton on the board. Windsor’s Riley Moore immediately answered with a 3-pointer, and the Lady Greyhounds led by as many as eight in the first quarter before steals by Combs and Pace led to layups. Windsor went on an 8-3 run capped off by another Moore jumper to establish a 21-12 lead before Pace closed the half with a basket.
“The whole first half, we just had outside jump shot, outside jump shot, outside jump shot,” Culpepper said. “We had to get where we were attacking the rim. Destiny helped us out a lot there and they all played their butts off.”
Midway through the third quarter, a pair of Williams buckets inside made it a 10-point game with Windsor leading 26-16. Tipton scored the next eight points, Combs hit a layup, Olivia Huhmann hit a pair of free throws and Dowell hit a layup to make it 26-22 at the end of the third.
Pace cut it to 26-24 with free throws to open the fourth, but Windsor quickly ballooned the lead back to 31-24 when Williams converted a 3-point play and Neel hit a jumper.
Dowell answered on the next possession with a 3-pointer to cut Windsor’s lead to 31-27.Dowell finished with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.
“We were moving the ball around really well, and we were able to get it around and get the shot up,” she said.
“We just lost her for some reason,” Forrest said. “It didn’t matter where she was, we just weren’t paying attention trying to find her.”
Combs immediately followed the Dowell 3-pointer with a steal and a layup. Fouled on the play, she missed the free throw, but Jessica Petree swooped in for the putback to tie the game at 31 with 6:20 left.
“I was just thinking to go around the girl on the bottom and try to get the rebound so I could go back up for the shot,” Petree said. “I wasn’t sure which way it would go, but luckily it came my way.”
Tipton took the lead on a Dowell layup and after a Combs steal, Pace hit a basket to make it 36-32. Windsor fought its way back on baskets by Williams and Moore, and Williams tied the game at 38 with a pair of free throws with 24 seconds to play, but Tipton made the last shot to come away with the win.