The Cass girls entered Tuesday’s home game against Rome without a signature win. They had beaten every team they would have been expected to defeat, but the Colonels had yet to knock off a top team, despite several opportunities in Region 7-AAAAA.
At Monday’s practice, Cass head coach Burt Jackson made sure his players knew the significance of a possible victory over third-ranked Rome. While it took until midway the fourth quarter for the Colonels to so much as take the lead, Jackson’s group managed to secure the breakthrough win in a 51-48 thriller.
“I said, ‘At some point, we’ve got to get over the hump,’” Jackson said, recalling his team discussion from the day prior. “‘It feels good that we’re playing these teams close. At some point, we’ve got to get over the hump.’
“And we did tonight.”
A lot of the credit for that will go to standouts Claire Davis and Londaisha Smith. The duo absolutely carried the offensive load for Cass, finishing with a combined 42 points.
Davis dominated the third quarter, scoring a baker’s dozen in the period. The sophomore continued her hot shooting in the final stanza, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to key the Colonels’ final comeback. After Davis scored the final of her 25 points to pull Cass within one point, Smith gave her side the lead and went on to the Colonels’ next seven points, ending with 17 for the game.
“Claire Davis and Londaisha showed why they’re, in my opinion, both first-team all-region players,” Jackson said. “I felt like they did a great job of leading us, and everybody else did their part. …
“I talked to Claire Davis at halftime. She was struggling, and I told Claire, ‘It’s time to be big time against the top teams in the state. Are you ready to be big time or not?’ She said, ‘Coach, I’m ready.’ Actions speak louder than words. She stepped up and had a monster second half. Monster.”
Even with Davis and Smith taking over the game in the fourth quarter, Cass (15-6, 6-6) wasn’t quite out of the woods. Rome (15-4, 8-2) was within three points for much of the final minute until Haley Johnson cooly sank both ends of a 1-and-1 to put the hosts up 51-46 with 13.8 seconds to go.
The Wolves weren’t done, though. An offensive putback, which hurt the Colonels all night, with 6.3 seconds remaining pulled Rome within one possession, and a turnover gave the visitors a chance to tie the game.
The Wolves misfired on a long-range effort, but the ball went out of bounds off the Colonels with 0.7 seconds remaining. Smith batted away the ensuing inbounds pass to seal the victory.
“It’s a big-time win for us,” Jackson said, “and I hope it leads to greater things in the future.”
Early on, it appeared as if Cass would squander another opportunity for a season-defining win. The Colonels didn’t score until there was 3:31 left in the first quarter and could only muster four points — all by Davis — the entire period.
However, the team’s defense kept it in the game. When Davis scored her first bucket, the score was only 3-2. By the end of the stanza, Rome had stretched its lead to 12-4.
“I was pleased with the fact we held them to 12, because that’s [on pace] for 48,” Jackson said. “With the way we play, if we hold a team to 50 or less, we have a really good chance to win the game. …
“I told the girls, ‘Let’s just cut into the lead every quarter. If we make a few shots, we can do this.’ I felt like, defensively, we were playing well.”
Jackson’s premonition came true.
Smith got going in the second quarter, dropping home eight points. Despite trailing by as many as 10 points, the Colonels were able to pull within 22-17 by halftime.
“I felt like we settled down in the second quarter,” Jackson said. “Taryn [Callahan] hit a big 3 in the second quarter to make it 20-17, and I thought Justice Bennett was huge in the second quarter, as well.”
The Wolves had the first four points of the second half to up the advantage to 26-17. But that’s when Davis started to heat up. Callahan had two points in the third quarter, but the Colonels’ other 13 points belonged to Davis, including a couple of 3s.
Trailing 35-32 to begin the final period, Cass again saw Rome go on a run. The Wolves stretched their lead to 43-36, prompting a Colonels timeout. The hosts responded with an 8-0, as Davis connected twice from deep, to give Cass its first lead of the game.
“There’s been many times when I’ve called timeout and wondered if that did any good,” Jackson said. “… That was a timeout where I felt it did some good.”
After the Colonels took the slight lead, the Wolves called their own timeout. Theirs wasn’t as successful.
Smith drilled a corner 3, and the junior answered a Rome basket with a putback to restore the four-point edge. With Cass clinging to a 49-46 lead, Johnson buried both foul shots, accounting for the sophomore’s only two points of the night. They proved vital, as the Colonels survived the final nerve-wracking exchanges.
“Our girls, as young as they are, are beginning to grow up and get used to the talent and intensity that is in this region,” Jackson said.
With the victory, Cass remains solidly in fifth place in the region standings. It marked the first win against any of the other top six in the league. Three of the Colonels' final four regular-season games will come against those opponents, offering more chances to prove they belong in the Class 5A state playoffs.
“I think the biggest thing was we’ve been in so many hard-fought region games,” Jackson said. “… We were ready.”