GATLINBURG — It wouldn’t be the District 3-AA championship game without the Gatlinburg-PIttman Lady Highlanders.
The girls in blue and gold earned a spot in their ninth-straight district championship game Friday night with a convincing 59-42 win over rival Pigeon Forge.
The Lady Tigers wouldn’t go down without a fight, however, and early on it looked as though the game could go down to the wire. Pigeon Forge, which had lost by a combined 39 points to G-P in two regular-season matchups, started the game off hot against the heavily favored Lady Highlanders.
Kailee Bradley hit a pair of 3-pointers and Sarah Teaster added another to help Pigeon Forge get out to a surprising 12-10 lead with two minutes to go in the opening quarter.
An inside bucket from G-P’s Maddy Newman and five-straight points from Leah Stinnett, however, lifted the Lady Highlanders back to a 17-12 advantage before PF guard Halle Hensley hit a 3-pointer from the left wing just before time expired to narrow the lead to 17-15.
“It’s really hard to go eight days without playing a game,” G-P coach Katie Moore said after the game, “so I thought that we might start off slow. But I also thought (PF coach) Emory (Cain) did a great job adjusting his defense to what he felt like our strengths were — which is obviously inside. And I thought it took a little bit for our girls to adjust.”
In spite of PF’s stellar early play, by halftime G-P’s advantage stood at 26-19.
A dominating third quarter sealed G-P’s return trip to the district championship game.
“In the second half we were able to make those adjustments,” Moore said, “and I think that that really helped us make that run in the third quarter.”
An 8-0 run early in the period set the tone for the second half, as the team’s dual six-footers, Newman and Taylor Reed, clogged the post and took control of the lane.
By the end of the third, what had been a seven-point lead had swelled to 43-30.
“They’re really big, and we had a hard time keeping them off the offensive glass,” PF’s Cain said of the Lady Highlanders. “We played our zone a little bit different tonight, too, to try and double-down on their bigs, but the Newman girl still had a big night. They have a lot of weapons, but I’m proud of my girls for fighting.”
The fiery Tigers sought a comeback in the fourth, but G-P’s size advantage and talent proved too great a deficit. By halfway through the quarter — behind hot shooting from Leah Stinnett and 5-for-6 from the charity stripe for Newman — the Lady Highlanders led by 17. And that’s where the deficit would ultimately end at 59-42.
“We just didn’t shoot it well down the stretch and I thought we made a few mental mistakes that we usually don’t make,” Cain said. “But in a big game sometimes that happens.”
G-P’s Newman led all scorers in the game with 22 points, tallying 11 points in each half.
Lilly Stinnett was the Highlanders’ second leading-scorer, as she notched seven points in both the first and final quarters for 14 total.
Sydney McCarty was also in double-figures with 12, while Reed added nine and Bailey Lane had another 2 for G-P.
“I thought Maddy played really well for us,” Moore said. “She scored early for us when we needed her to. I know Taylor didn’t score a lot, but she did crash the boards hard, she got the ball to the right places when we needed her to, and I thought she did a pretty good job defensively by protecting the paint for us. I thought Lean Stinnett played really good defensively, and I thought she knocked down some big shots when we needed her to.”
Hensley was the Lady Tigers’ top scorer with 14. Only three other PF players found the net in the game: Bradley had 11, including a trio of 3-pointers; Ana Naas had 9; and Sarah Teaster scored 8 in the loss.
The Lady Tigers took on Union County Monday on night in the District 3-AA consolation game for third place.
The No. 2-seeded Lady Highlanders faced top-seeded Northview Academy on the Lady Cougars’ home court. G-P hoped to stop Northview from earning the school’s third-consecutive District 3-AA title.