Lady T-Birds Win Region 5 Title
3/10/2014 8:31:21 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. (Story courtesy of Clayton Jones/ News-Sun) LUBBOCK — Momentum appeared to be creeping toward McLennan Community College as New Mexico Junior College’s top scorer Kassandra Harris fouled out with two minutes left and the Highlassies cut the Lady T-Bird lead to 76-73 with 1:06 remaining in the Region 5 championship game.
However, NMJC showed there was a reason it had won a dozen games in a row entering the contest and are the three-time defending Western Junior College Athletic Conference champions.
NMJC sophomore Leila Jdily-Ezzad hit a reverse layup with 37.8 seconds left, freshman Kelsey Criner split a pair of free throws and the Lady T-Birds locked up on defense and celebrated its second Region 5 championship in three years with a 79-75 win Saturday at Rip Griffin Center on the campus of Lubbock Christian University.
NMJC advanced to the NJCAA National Championships on March 17 in Salina, Kan., by beating a team that had put up over 100 points in its first two games of the regional tournament.
“We were kind of fortunate that it was their third game because scoring 100 twice took its toll on them,” NMJC coach Drew Sanders said. “Both teams were tired, you could tell. There were a lot of mistakes not made last night. ... The important thing is the kids showed how tough they are mentally and we got it done.”
NMJC (25-5) led 66-56 with 9:57 left as Harris scored 11 of the Lady T-Birds’ first 16 points of the second half.
Harris, an Albuquerque Cibola graduate and the only player on the team with New Mexico ties, finished with a game-high 28 points and 13 rebounds.
“Kassandra has just been awesome,” Sanders said. “She didn’t play real well the first night but the last two nights she has been great for us. The first half she carried us and in the second half we got into trouble a couple of times and she got us some big buckets. ...
“But we had a lot of people step up for us tonight. It was just a good team effort.”
McLennan (20-12) slowly crept back into the game as a bucket by Kyra Bauer with 5:08 left cut the NMJC lead to 68-64.
But a strong post move by NMJC sophomore Tanya Simpson along with four free throws by Jdily-Ezzad and a pair by Harris kept NMJC ahead at 76-69 with 2:02 remaining.
However Harris picked up her fifth foul trying to take a charge on McLennan’s next possession, and she admits it was tough to watch the final two minutes from the bench.
“It was nerve racking,” Harris said. “I felt like if we would’ve lost it would’ve been my fault because I fouled out and let my team down because I’m a big contributor. ... It was pretty emotional.”
The Highlassies eventually cut the lead to 76-73 with 1:06 left in the game before the Lady T-Birds ate up much of the shot clock before a nice pass underneath to Jdily-Ezzad set her up for a reverse layup to make it 78-73 with 37.8 seconds left.
McLennan’s Ashley Bean quickly scored with 31.7 seconds left to again make it a three point game at 78-75.
NMJC eventually got the ball across midcourt and Criner was fouled with 15.6 seconds left.
She missed the first, but Criner sank the second to give NMJC a two-possession lead at 79-75 and the Highlassies wouldn’t score again.
NMJC actually led for nearly the entire game as a Monique Mulder steal and layup with 17:06 left in the first half gave the Lady T-Birds the lead for good at 6-5.
It was part of a 22-5 run for NMJC – capped by a Jdily-Ezzad 3-pointer with 12:01 left to make it 22-10 Lady T-Birds.
To go along with Harris’ 28 points, Jdily-Ezzad had nine points and three assists, Criner had eight points, six assists, six rebounds and two blocks, T’Keya Mason had eight points as did Blair Richmond.
Shanice Davis led McLennan with 20 points while Bean had 18, Sha’de Adedapo had 15 and Amani Davis had 10.
NMJC shot 46.7 percent from the field and was 20-for-24 from the free-throw line compare to McLennan shooting 36.2 percent from the field and 17-for-23 from the charity stripe.
As for making the program’s second trip to the national tournament in three years, Sanders said there a lot of people responsible for that.
“This is a tribute to the administration for their support and their continued support,” Sanders said. “The next tribute goes to the players. A lot of people say coaches win championships but I haven’t seen a coach put a ball through a basket yet. Players have to do that and of course our players have gotten better and have done a great job of carrying us through the negative times.”
(Photo: NMJC's Tanya Simpson cuts a piece of net off following the Lady T-Birds' Region 5 Championship win over McLennan on Satuday in Lubbock).