MURFREESBORO — For a brief, fleeting moment early in the fourth quarter, there was cause for Christ Presbyterian Academy to believe they could score a monumental upset.
But almost as soon as the Lions lit the fire, top-ranked Gibson County and Miss Basketball finalist Heather Butler extinguished the flames and finished strong for a 56-36 win over CPA Wednesday afternoon in the girls state tournament.
The diminutive 5-5 Butler poured in 33 points, 20 in the first half, had six steals and went 12-for-12 at the foul line, including six straight in the final 3:01. Post player Heather Griffin added 12 points and nine rebounds in the AA quarterfinal win.
CPA trailed by as much as 30-16 early in the third quarter, but the Lions fought back to close it to 39-33 on a steal and layup by Hannah Thurley with 6:17 left. But Butler nailed a long three to put the Pioneers back on track, and they finished the game on a 16-2 run.
“CPA is a very good team, and they gave us a run for our money,’’ Butler said. “As a point guard, I have to be the leader of this team and knock down free throws when we really need them.’’
There was hope for CPA until then.
“When I looked up and saw we were just six down (with 6:17 left), I thought we can do this if we make up a point a minute the rest of the way,’’ said Coach Mike Ellson, whose team ended 32-5. “Then Butler hit that three, and we were forced to start fouling.’’
“She (Butler) was on fire, although I thought we defended pretty well,’’ Ellson said. “But there were times we seemed to have too much urgency to get a shot up, and our turnovers (23) really hurt. Their (Gibson’s) tournament experience really showed up.’’
Gibson County (33-1) hit 17-of-19 free throws, while CPA attempted none. “We didn’t get the ball inside enough,’’ Ellson said in response to the zero free throws, “although it’s a little surprising we didn’t attempt any.’’
Thurley, who had a spectacular 26-point, 10-steal game in the sectionals, led CPA with 10 points and two steals and was one of the few Lions who attacked the basket. Her two hoops pulled CPA within 19-16 early, although the Lions never led.
“We had some good looks, we just weren’t able to get enough of our shots in the hoop,’’ Thurley said. “I’ll always remember how special this team was.’’
“I don’t think we controlled out nerves enough,’’ said post Anna Mitchell, who scored six points to go with a team-high seven rebounds, but she only got five shots.
“We put up a good fight, we never backed down,’’ added Mitchell who was near tears after her final high school game. “I just hate that we didn’t play better, we can play so much better than this.’’
Lauren Thompson added eight points and five rebounds, while Meredith Roman added seven points, six assists and four rebounds. The two freshmen will serve as part of a key nucleus for next season’s Lions.
“We scheduled tough, and I think that was one of the reasons we got here (state),’’ Ellson said. “This will go down for me as one of the really special teams ever.’’
“When a great team is going against another great team, you’re going to be challenged at some point during the game,’’ said Gibson coach David Russell. “You have to step up and make plays, and this team did.’’
Asked if Butler was a tough matchup for CPA, Russell smiled and said, “she’s a tough matchup for anybody.’’
Butler, Griffin and Aubrey Reedy, who scored 52 of Gibson’s 55 points Wednesday, are all signed for UT-Martin where they will play for their former high school coach Kevin McMillan who moved over to coach UT-M last June.
Gibson County meets South Greene in Friday’s AA semifinals.