The Lady Mustangs had far too many giveaways, played beneath their ability on the boards and dug themselves a first-half hole too deep to dig out of, said head coach Jessica Stone of the 78-62 loss.
In the boys’ game the Mustangs punched, counterpunched and got punched before winning by a TKO in a 73-67 overtime victory over the Cherokees in the closer.
"The first half was awful in every single facet of the game," was Stone's assessment of the first 16 minutes. "We had 15 turnovers at halftime. We weren't staying in front of anybody, we weren't boxing out and we weren't rebounding."
Walker Valley (8-12, 3-5 District 5-AAA) quickly fell behind by double digits in the first quarter and trailed by 20 early in the second. McMinn County (13-5, 6-2) outjumped the Lady Mustangs 17-12 on the first-half boards and turned the ball over only six times while hitting 47 percent from the floor.
"At halftime I just said they had to stay in front of their man. They had to box out and they had to quit turning the ball over. I told them they had two more quarters to play and they could quit now or play," Stone said of her halftime discourse.
The Walker Valley girls decided to play.
Peyton Davis opened with back-to-back 3-pointers, and Wendi Watson followed with a 3 and a 2 to make it a 47-35 game. The Lady Mustangs continued to shovel out of the hole, closing the gap to only six points before the Lady Cherokees added one more bucket at the end of the third.
Watson ended the night with 19 points and Davis closed out with 11.
"That is the first time they have battled back. Usually when this happens they put their heads down. From that standpoint it is optimistic," Stone said of the gallant effort. "But, McMinn is a good team and we can't beat McMinn when we turn the ball over as much as we do and don't rebound. But, I didn't have a problem with their effort at all tonight as far as the second half is concerned."
After early Walker Valley points, McMinn increased its lead back to double digits and led by 14 with three minutes left to play before closing out the 78-62 win from the free-throw line.
"We told them after the game, if they don't dig their hole that deep to start out, when we go on that run in the third quarter it's a different ball game. They understood that. They are disappointed and down a little bit on themselves," said Stone. "But, we are going to take this and move on; that's all we can do."
For good or bad, free throws have been the theme of the season for the Mustangs in feast or famine fashion. After going hungry on more than one occasion, Walker Valley has tasted victory in its last two games with hot shooting from the line in deciding moments.
Walker Valley (11-8, 3-5 District 5-AAA) made 6-of-8 count in the final minute of Friday's win over McMinn County (8-12, 3-5) while going 20-of-26 for the night.
"We've not shot free throws great this year," said Mustangs coach Bob Williams. "That was huge, making free throws tonight. Jackson (Brownfield), Austin (Harwood), Tucker (Godfrey), all of them making the free throws. But, you've got to make them in these games. McMinn makes their free throws, they are a really good free-throw shooting team. We knew if we fouled them it was almost a sure two."
Williams credits a change in the Mustangs' approach to free throws during practice for the recent success from the line.
"We’re trying to change up things in practice and make it more meaningful. Instead of going up there and shooting free throws, we are trying to make them count. Before we leave (practice) the team has to make eight in a row. But, you have to set a goal and they have to make it," Williams said of the new initiative. "We just try to make it more competitive in practice and make it more gamelike."
Tucker Godfrey scored 13 second-half points and went 5-for-5 from the line to close out the win with 20 to lead the Mustangs. Caio Hysinger added 16 and Lukas Korn 12 hit double figures with 12.
The Mustangs and Cherokees played close in the first half, swapping the lead back and forth. Hysinger's 3 with 1:32 left put the Mustangs up 26-23 and Walker Valley closed the half with a 28-26 lead.
The third quarter was a virtual repeat of the first two. The Mustangs and Cherokees traded the lead eight times before McMinn eased to a 42-37 lead with 1:25 left. Dustin Swafford's two free tosses touched off a 7-0 Mustangs' run to close out the half, giving Walker Valley a 44-42 advantage.
The fourth quarter was a virtual repeat of the first three. With McMinn County leading 61-56 with 1:24 to go in regulation, Godfrey lifted in a 3 and countered with two free throws to send the game into overtime.
The Cherokees opened overtime with two points to go up 63-61. The Mustangs fought back to go up 65-63 before McMinn again tied the game at 65-all.
Hysinger put the Mustangs out front for good with 2:40 left. Walker Valley finished out the night from the line hitting 6-of-8.
"In the past, we probably don't win that game. But, we are mature and we are figuring out how to make plays down the stretch. I told them in the fourth quarter whoever makes the most plays is going to win the game. It was going back and forth and I thought we did a good job of finishing," said Williams.
"We are finding ways to win and are making plays. The two games we lost, we were in both those games, but Cleveland and Bradley made more plays than we did. That's what it comes down to in a close game, who makes the free throws, who makes the plays and who gets defensive stops. We are maturing a little bit and hopefully we've had enough games like this where it will pay off come tournament time."
LADY CHEROKEES 78, LADY MUSTANGS 62
McMinn County 20 23 13 22 — 78
Walker Valley 9 13 26 14 — 62
McMinn County (78) — Keke Smith 26, Haley Ward 21, Rachel Burke 12, Alisa Guardida 11, Simbeck 5, Kelley 2, Disoensa, Thompson.
Walker Valley (62) — Wendi Watson 19, Peyton Davis 11, Mowery 8, Alomar 9, Jones 7, Percy 6, Beavers 2, Macon, Pitner.
3-point goals: McMinn County 6 (Ward 3, Guardina, Burke, Simbeck); Walker Valley 5 (Davis 2, Watson 2, Jones).
Free Throws: McMinn County 12-of-19; Walker Valley 11-of-14.
Records: McMinn County 13-5, 6-2 District 5-AAA; Walker Valley 8-12, 3-5 District 5-AAA.
MUSTANGS 73, CHEROKEES 67
McMinn County 12 14 16 19 6 — 67
Walker Valley 11 17 16 17 12 — 73
McMinn County (67) — Quinton Versa 31, Ty Jones 10, Austin Hayes 11, Martin 7, Marshal 6, Simpson 3, Edgemon, Hammond, Armstrong..
Walker Valley (73) — Tucker Godfrey 20, Caio Hysinger 16, Lukas Korn 12, Harwood 7, Melton 6, Brownfield 8, Anthony 2, Swafford 2, Cartwright.
3-point goals: McMinn County 6 (Hayes 3, Versa, Marshall, Simpson); Walker Valley 7 (Godfrey 3, Hysinger 3, Melton).
Free Throws: McMinn County 21-of-24; Walker Valley 20-of-26.
Records: McMinn County 8-12, 3-5 District 5-AAA; Walker Valley 11-8, 3-5 District 5-AAA.