Anniston had a 29-24 lead and held the ball, forcing Guntersville to come out of its zone defense and attack. Anniston was the quicker team.
But Guntersville forced the action, got some luck on a long air ball rebound and held Anniston without a field goal in the final six minutes. The Wildcats won 33-30 to advance to this week’s Final 48 in Birmingham.
“I thought we had them,” Anniston coach Eddie Bullock said. “I was trying to pick the tempo of the game up.”
Guntersville (19-10) was able to play Anniston’s tempo when the Wildcats had to.
Right after Guntersville came out of its zone, a Kaitlyn Bannister steal resulted in her making one of two free throws to cut the lead to 29-25 at the five-minute mark.
Caroline Bridges hit consecutive jumpers after two Anniston turnovers to tie the game at 29 with 1:44 to play, and then Guntersville got a little luck.
After Tiakeefah Huguley made one of two free throws to put Anniston back up 30-29 at 1:24, Bridges missed long on a baseline 3-point attempt. Point guard Taylor Gibson snuck into the lane for the rebound and putback to put Guntersville up 31-30 at 1:06.
“I just felt like I knew where I needed to go,” Gibson said.
The putback rolled on the rim before falling through.
“I was just like, ‘Please go in! Please go in!,’” Gibson said.
After a timeout, Anniston had chances to retake the lead, but Patricia Pickens missed a driving shot, and Daica Wilson missed the putback attempt.
Anniston’s last chance came after tournament MVP Cati Leak calmly sank two free throws to make it 33-30 with 12.9 seconds left, but Huguley’s 3-pointer from the top of the key drew front rim.
“That was our shot,” Bullock said. “I had told them during the timeout that, if we transition and we get a wide-open look, take it. If not, I’m going to get a timeout with five seconds, and I’ve got a couple of plays that we practice daily.
“We were already set, and we were going to run it, but once she got the wide-open look, I didn’t want to call timeout to break her rhythm.”
Both teams shot under 30 percent for the game, and Anniston held a 38-30 rebounding edge, but the Bulldogs committed 17 turnovers and forced only seven from Guntersville.
The Bulldogs, who thrive on transition, got just three points off turnovers and four fast break points.
Bridges was the game’s lone double-figure scorer with 15 points, and Leak turned in 11 rebounds to help the Wildcats win the chance to add another championship to their resume.
Bridges has played for two state-title soccer teams at Guntersville, while Leak and Gibson played for two championship volleyball teams. Leak will play volleyball at LSU.
“I’m really proud of our multi-sport athletes that they invest time in this sport,” Guntersville coach Johnny Harbison said. “They are so good at the other ones, nobody would think a second thought if they chose not to.”
Pickens scored nine points, all in the first half, to lead Anniston, which finished its season 28-5.
“We had a great season,” Bullock said. “We kind of anticipated making it to Birmingham this year. We felt like we had to put some pieces together, and sometimes, you’ve got to have a little luck.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.