By Mike Phillips
Corsicana Daily Sun
AUSTIN — Tears flowed like the Mississippi and words and emotions were caught in the throats of the Kerens LadyCats.
No one really knew what to say or how to say it.
In the end, all they could do was stand there and watch Plains take free throw after free throw. You can’t make a steal on a free throw. You can’t block it or defend it. All you can do is stand and watch.
That’s the way Kerens’ incredible, inspirational season ended — with the LadyCats helpless to do anything.
Plains won the first state title in the school’s history, beating Kerens 57-44 in a game that was a nail-biter until the final minutes when Plains pulled away for good to win the Class 1A DI state title at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center on Saturday.
The Kerens kids left the court in tears. And they left it with class.
“We played hard right to the end and they played with class,’’ Kerens Coach Denise Lincoln said. “They held their heads up and played with class.’’
Lincoln refused to blame the officiating, which stunned the coach and her kids. By the time the game was over, Plains had taken 29 free throws. Kerens had taken nine.
The free throws were so lopsided that at one point in the game Lincoln went to the officials not to complain but to simply ask what Kerens had to do.
She was bewildered because it appeared that the Kerens kids were getting hammered under their own basket with one no-call after another while Plains was making a steady and consistent parade to the free throw line.
“I went to them and asked them what was the difference,” Lincoln said. “I wanted to know what we needed to do. I wanted to know why we were getting fouls called on us at one end and they weren’t getting any fouls called under our basket. I really wanted to know what we needed to do. I wanted them to explain to me what was the difference?”
Lincoln never blamed anyone for the loss after the game.
“I’m not blaming anyone,’’ she said. “It happens. We should have taken care of our business.’’
But she still had to face her kids in a locker room full of heartache and tears.
“I told them I was proud of them,’’ she said. I told them that this is life and sometimes you have things that aren’t fair. We live and learn. They played hard.’’
It was a nightmare from the beginning as Kerens lost two starters to foul trouble in the opening minutes of the game. Both Breanna Baxter and Taylor Ames, two of the best players in this part of Texas, picked up two fouls in the first quarter and sat on the bench as Plains came back to take an 11-10 lead after the first eight minutes.
Foul trouble haunted Kerens in the first half and Plains built a 24-21 halftime lead on the strength of free throws. The Cowgirls made 11-of-14 free throws in the first half while Kerens took only three free throws over the first 16 minutes of the game. By halftime, Baxter had three fouls, Ames had two and Cambree Betts also had two fouls. Plains committed only four fouls in the first half and was credited with 10 blocked shots, all under the Kerens basket -- all no calls.
“We got in foul trouble early and it did change the game,” Lincoln said. “I think it got into their heads and it did affect us.’’
Ames was in and out of the game and played just 26 minutes before fouling out with 1:12 left. Ames has been the leader down the stretch for Kerens and had monster games against Slocum, defending state champ Martin’s Mill and Weimar in the semifinals. After averaging more than 20 points a game over the last four games to get to the final, Ames left with 11 points.
Ames is a four-year starter and played in 140 games in her career at Kerens. Over the past four seasons, she had fouled out only three times, and played 33 games this season without getting into foul trouble until Saturday.
“It was very frustrating,’’ said Ames, her voice barely a whisper and her face coated with tears. “I felt like I couldn’t play my game, worrying about the fouls.’’
The free throw shooting was so lopsided that Corsicana girls Coach Art Prevost, who was doing commentary on the radio for KAND, said: “Remind me never to use the Longview Chapter (of officials, who called the game).”
Kerens plays an unrelenting defense that forced 37 turnovers in the semifinal game and 138 turnovers over the final four games to get to the title game. Plains did a great job handling Kerens’ pressure but still committed 20 turnovers.
But Kerens shot just 25 percent from the floor and made only 4-of-28 3s, including some desperation 3s in the final minutes that allowed Plains to break a 39-39 tie in the final four minutes and put the game away with drives and free throws.
“We play a fast game and we took some quick shots at the end, but that’s our game,'' Lincoln said. "Our shots just weren’t falling.’’
By the time it was over Ames had fouled out and Baxter, Cambree Betts and Kiara Lindsey all had four fouls each. Betts finished with 10 points and five rebounds. Baxter finished with six points and six boards and Lindsey, a guard whose defense during the playoffs has been amazing, had three steals and seven rebounds. But Kerens never got into a rhythm and every time the LadyCats would put together a run, Plains would answer with more free throws. Riley Earnest led Plains (30-3) with 17 points, and nine of those came from the free throw line.
“I think the difference was the fouling,’’ said Marqueshia Kelly, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. “Getting this far is a big thing for our school. We wanted to win it.’’
“It’s going to make a difference,’’ she said of her kids being the first Kerens team (29-5) to play for a state title. “There are no regrets. At the end of the game whoever wins, wins. They played hard and never got down. They held their heads up high, and the young girls (in the stands) saw that. I am really proud of them. I just wish we would have finished.’’
Lincoln’s team was here in Austin two years ago and Ames, Kelly and Betts started as sophomores and Baxter started as a freshman on that team that left vowing to come back.
They kept that promise and swapped leads all day with Plains in a game that was tied seven times and had seven lead changes despite the lopsided free throw numbers.
The kids and coaches said all along they wanted to take care of “Unfinished Business,” and that became their mantra, their war cry as they marched through the playoffs, and into the title game with a determination and resolve that carried them and the Kerens community to the brink of a state championship.
Then they played their hearts out one more time.
They left in tears and with class …
Mike Phillips may be reached by email at email@example.com. Want to “Soundoff” on this story? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org