By Mark Saluke
Fairmount — Two-time defending champion Tipton refused to go quietly in the girls basketball Class 2A Sectional 39 title game, swinging up to the end before Eastern pulled away in the final minute for a 53-44 win Saturday night.
Brittany Neeley scored 31 points and pulled down 10 rebounds as the co-No. 6-ranked Comets earned their second sectional crown in program history. The other came in 1999.
“Words really can’t describe it,” Brittany Neeley said, gripping a freshly cut piece of net in her hands. “I know I’ve been going after this for four years and it honestly hasn’t fully hit me yet. We’ve always wanted to hang a banner, and I can’t believe it’s actually here.”
Eastern (19-3) advances to play Winchester (20-4), a 56-49 winner over Frankton Saturday, in next Saturday’s Lapel Regional semifinal round.
“We knew it would go down to the wire,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “I figured it would come down to a possession or two at the end. There is no other program out there that I respect more than Tipton and [coach] Nick Comer. We knew we would get their best shot.”
With 1:26 remaining in the game, junior Kacie Juday got Tipton (13-10) the closest it had been since the second quarter when she hit a pair of free-throws to make it a four-point game, 46-42.
Needing to extend the game clock, the Devils took to fouling. Eastern knocked down 7 of 8 freebies in the final minute. Brittany Neeley was 6 of 6 during that stretch, hitting 14 of 16 attempts from behind the stripe for the game.
“I shot so many free throws this summer, I have no idea how many,” she said. “I felt pretty good. I didn’t feel too nervous or fatigued down the stretch. We know Tipton pretty well and knew that they would just keep coming.”
The Devils jumped to a 16-12 lead at the first stop before going a cool 1 of 12 from the field in the second frame as the Comets were able to capitalize, outscoring Tipton 16-5 in the frame, going up 28-21 at the half.
“We settled down too much offensively,” Tipton’s Comer said of the second-quarter lull. “We decided to settle for jump shots, quit probing the lane, things we had a lot of success with in the first quarter we got away from a little bit.”
The Comets’ lead grew as large as 10 on two occasions in the third quarter as Eastern took a nine-point, 39-30 advantage into the final quarter.
Juday kept the Devils in it down the stretch, scoring nine of Tipton’s 14 points in the final frame. She finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman Macie Lively finished with 13.
Taylor Holliday chipped in nine for Eastern, while Ally Oyler finished with eight. Bethany Neeley, who battled foul trouble for much of the game with the tough defensive assignment against Juday, went scoreless for the first time in her career.
“Bethany doesn’t need to score,” Dexter said. “She’s always been a tremendous player who does all the intangibles. That’s what she’s done her whole career. She battled some foul trouble, but she guarded Kacie. Kacie is just a tremendous player and for a while in the fourth quarter, you’re just wondering, because Kacie’s good enough, is she just going to take this all on her back and win this game? Bethany and Brittany did a tremendous job guarding her.”
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