FORT WALTON BEACH -- Her team clinging to a 57-56 lead and three of her senior teammates sidelined with five fouls, Choctaw’s Brittany Washington stepped to the foul line with 11.7 seconds left to play in Thursday’s Region 1-6A quarterfinal against Pensacola.
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On the bench were Brittany Brown, Caneisaya Matthews and Lauren Day, who was the last to foul out with 14 seconds left. But before doing so she left a message for the junior.
“I just said you’ve got this,” said Day, who delivered a double-double of 17 points and 15 rebounds. “You’ve done it before. You just need to take over.”
Following the heart-to-heart, Kayla Thompson cut the lead to one with a pair of free throws. And then Washington proceeded to put the team on her back.
The junior calmly buried the two free throws and Pensacola’s last-second heave hit off the back of the rim to lead the undefeated Indians into the region semifinals with a 59-56 victory. Brittany Brown, who watched helplessly from the bench for the final 34 seconds of play after pouring in a team-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals, laid on her back at midcourt with her hands over her face. Meanwhile, Day and Washington embraced in front of the Indians’ bench.
“It felt so good. It felt like I just won a million dollars,” Washington said.
The Indians had done what evaded them last year, when their season came to an end at the hands of Pensacola in the region semifinals. The Indians had also ended Pensacola’s hopes of a sixth-straight trip to the final four.
“We’ve grown up a little bit since last year and we’re going to fight to the end, win or lose,” Choctaw coach Don Brown said. “We’re going to play as hard as we can and just see what happens.”
The Indians next take the home court on Tuesday against Pine Forest, which defeated Fort Walton Beach 64-45 at home.
Back to the two free throws, which left Pensacola the only option of relying on a shot they had made just one time in nine attempts Thursday night, Washington said Lauren’s words hit her deep.
“Lauren told to hold my head up and lead the team,” she said. “After that I just knew I needed to make these free throws for my team and come through.”
Coach Brown said the pair of clutch shots were emblematic of a team that has relied on its depth all season long.
“That’s what it’s been all about,” he said. “It’s a team effort. Everybody has a role to play and some kids stepped up tonight. They were asked to do some big things and they did.”
Along with Washington’s 15 points and the double-doubles chipped in by Brittany Brown and Day, Tasharah Sanders shined with 10 rebounds. Not to be left out of the mix, the Indians forced 15 turnovers, held Pensacola to 33 percent shooting and didn’t allow a good look on the final 3-pointer seconds before the buzzer.
“I’m very proud of them for hanging in there and fighting and battling,” coach Brown said.
It wasn’t a battle early on for the Indians, who got 18 first-half points from Brittany Brown to lead 35-25 at halftime. The lead hit as many as 16 midway through the third quarter after a Brittany Brown trey, but Chelsey Gibson scored four of her game-high 25 points and Shamira Hunter added seven to fuel a 13-1 run to end the frame and close the deficit to 48-44.
Choctaw would stretch the lead to seven, but Brown and Day fouled out down the stretch and Pensacola wouldn’t go away. That is until Washington headed the call and the Indians delivered one last defensive stop.
“We were just ready to move on,” Day said.