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The Kerens LadyCats celebrate winning the region title on Saturday. They beat No. 1-ranked and defending state champ Martin's Mill 57-49 and advance to the Class 1A DI state tournament in Austin. Daily Sun photo/Mike Phillips

Next stop Austin!

And that may be the only thing that can stop the Kerens kids, the ones who are on the roadtrip of their lives, speeding down a highway of retribution with one foot on the gas and the other on revenge.

Oh, they stop along the way — just long enough to drop off a little payback and celebrate a season they may never forget, a season they have been dreaming about for years, a season two years in the making that was born in tears and has blossomed the way this very team has grown into what looks more and more like the best 1A girls basketball team in Texas.

If there was any doubt, the LadyCats took care of it Saturday afternoon at Tyler Junior College, where they beat Martin’s Mill, the defending state champs and the No. 1-ranked 1A team in Texas 57-49 to win the Class 1A DI Regional 3 Final and punch a ticket to Austin for the biggest dance of their lives.

The folks who vote in the state polls can send their apologies to Kerens ISD in care of the LadyCats (texting will be fine as well).

“We’re going to float all the way to Austin,’’ said senior Taylor Ames, who had yet another remarkable performance in the playoffs, scoring 18 points, including seven in-your-face points in the fourth quarter when everything was on the line. In the fourth, Ames outscored Martin’s Mill by herself, 7-5.

When it wasn’t Taylor, it was Breanna Baxter or Marqueshia Kelly or Cambree Betts or Kiara Lindsey coming up with one big play after another.

“I just couldn’t ask for anything better out of them,’’ Kerens Coach Denise Lincoln said. “They knew what they had to do and they did it. Every time we needed a big play someone stepped up. We wanted it more. I really believe that. We just wanted it more.’’

This was a long time coming for the LadyCats. They left Austin heartbroken two years ago after losing to Martin’s Mill in the state tournament, and they never forgot that loss or the way they felt that day.

Now Martin’s Mill knows that feeling.

“We’ve been waiting two years for this game,’’ said Ames with fire in her eyes. “It hurt when we lost to them at state, it hurt bad. I made up my mind I wasn’t going to let them do it again. My No. 1 priority was to get Martin’s Mill.’’

Ames got ‘em, all right. She was the dagger.

The two teams went to the fourth quarter knotted at 44-44. Baxter, who finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and an incredible game on defense, hit a put-back to lift Kerens to a 46-44 lead. Then after the Kerens defense swarmed Martin’s Mill, taking away every open look, Ames made a coast-to-coast drive to give Kerens a 48-44 lead with 5:32 left. Then after yet another Kerens’ stop, Baxter went to work inside for a 50-44 lead, and the Kerens fans were reaching for their phones to make hotel reservations in Austin.

Martin’s Mill, which couldn’t find the basket with a detective until late in the fourth, missing shot after shot, finally scored when Madison Daniel hit a long 3 with 2:56 left to close to 50-47. But Ames raced down the court and busted a 3 of her own with an answer Martin’s Mill will not forget — Bam! Just like that, Kerens was up 53-47 and time was running out on Martin’s Mill.

Betts, who finished with 13 points, added a free throw before Cassidy McCoy hit a floater for Martin’s Mill to close to 54-49 with 1:20 left. And after two missed free throws by Kerens, the Lady Mustangs had a chance to make it closer.

Ames didn’t give them that chance.

She stole the ball at midcourt with a pick-pocket move that left the Martin’s Mill player stunned. All she could do was watch Ames speed away on her way to a drive that made it a 56-49 game with 47 seconds left. Martin’s Mill never came close to scoring again, and Kelly added a free throw with 10 seconds left to make the final 57-49.

That steal and drive by Ames was the epitome of the game. Every time it was on the line, Kerens — and especially Ames — made a big play. And that LadyCat defense  — the one Betts calls, “Clang! Clang! Lockdown defense,’’ was there when it counted most.

Here’s the stat of the game: In the fourth quarter with everything on the line — the game, the season, and dreams of a state title — everything, Martin’s Mill had more airballs (3) than baskets (2).

The Lady Mustangs’ star player Cheyenne Brown, a 6-1 junior who is one of the best 1A players in the state, didn’t score a point in the fourth quarter. She hit an inside basket with 30 seconds left in the third to give Martin’s Mill a 44-42 lead, and didn’t score again.

Kelly, who finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots, and Baxter were determined to stop Brown.

They did.

“Those two did a great job on her,’’ Lincoln said. “We knew we had to stop her, and they played great defense.’’

Kelly, at 5-10, blocked three of Brown’s shots and Baxter and Kelly sandwiched Brown when she came into the paint. Brown finished with 18 points, but she shot just 29 percent (all high percentage shots), making just 7-of-24 from under the basket.

“We knew we had to stop her. She got some points, but she didn’t get her 30-32 points she usually gets,’’ said Kelly, who not only played intense defense, but came through with some big moments with the ball.

Kerens led early and when Ames hit a 3 to end the first quarter, the LadyCats led 17-10. But Martin’s Mill came back and caught Kerens at 23-23 on a 3 by Alyssa Pate with 2:04 left in the half. Kelly, a post player, came right back with a 3 of her own, and then hit a put-back to give Kerens a 28-23 lead with a minute left in the half.

It was like that during the entire game. Martin’s Mill would get close, and Kerens would answer. The two teams went through five ties and four lead changes in the third, before Betts hit the drive at the buzzer to start an 8-0 run that ended the push-and-shove see-saw match.

“That just us. It’s who we are,’’ Ames said. “We didn’t let them get ahead. Every time Martin’s Mill would push we would push back harder. We just wanted it more.’’

When the game ended, the Kerens kids leaped and hugged and leaped and hugged some more. The stands emptied, fans pouring onto the court and embracing the Kerens players and coaches while Martin’s Mill (33-3) looked stunned.

“I’m speechless,’’ Kelly said. “It’s all joy and smiles, joy and smiles.’’

Ames said “It feels awesome,’’ and Baxter, who kept telling her teammates to “keep working, keep working,’’ throughout the game, smiled and said, “I have no words for it.’’

The LadyCats (28-4) will do their talking in Austin in the state tournament. They play a team to be determined on Thursday morning.

After the game, Kerens kids were carrying a sign that read “Unfinished Business,” their motto, their slogan, their mantra — the words that drive their every heartbeat — this mission to win it all in Austin.

And while they held the sign, Lincoln clutched the trophy and said. “Yes, that’s what it’s all about, ‘Unfinished Business.’ We wanted to beat Martin’s Mill. We wanted to get them for what happened two years ago, and we pointed to this game. We got them.

“But we’re not finished.’’


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