However, the differences that gave the second-seeded Wildcats the 35-32 victory didn’t come quickly and certainly wasn’t pretty.
“It was ugly,” White Plains coach Michael Merriman said. “Saks played their tails off, but our girls always fight, and we were just able to pull it out in the end.”
After trailing 17-16 at halftime, White Plains (17-13) took the lead on a basket by Taylor Snellgrove to get the scoring started nearly two minutes into the half. Saks was unable to regain the lead over the next three minutes in the sloppy-offensive contest, but a three-pointer by Taylor West gave the Wildcats a 20-19 lead with 2:49 left in the third.
The game remained tight throughout the fourth quarter with Saks’ largest lead spanning six points. But after Aliyah Simmons hit two free throws for the third-seeded Wildcats (10-16), the mood all changed.
The White Plains comeback could be described with two words, Merriman said. Sopphie Taylor.
The sophomore’s final seven points of the game are what ultimately pushed the Wildcats past Saks, after White Plains struggled from the field nearly the entire game.
“They admitted to me that they were a little nervous,” Merriman said. “That thing was coming off our hands and we weren’t controlling it and we were throwing it around everywhere. It’s hard to score when you don’t run the plays and things that you’ve done.
“We pride ourselves on executing all of our plays. We want to get in there and run the defenses that we want to run and plays that we want to run. They put an extended zone on us tonight, and we have plays for that that we didn’t run. If we would have we would have had open looks.”
After Taylor and Snellgrove hit two big shots to cut Saks’ lead down by one, Daja Johnson knocked down two big foul shots with 47 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 32-29 lead.
Then it was all White Plains.
Taylor was fouled on the Wildcats’ next possession, knocking down both shots. After West was unable to make either free throw on Saks’ ensuing possession, it was Taylor again knocking down two foul shots with the back end giving White Plains the lead.
“There was a crucial foul right there at the end,” Saks coach Michelle Lively said. “(Justice Whatley) pushing that girl right there at the end, sending (Taylor) to the line and they went ahead. That was just not a very good foul for her. She should have just hustled back and we would have still had the lead.”
Following a Saks’ travel with 12 seconds left and a final unsuccessful offensive trip down the floor, Snellgrove hit the back end of her free throws for White Plains to ice the game with 1.1 seconds left.
With seven of the Wildcats’ final 10 points, ending the game of a 10-2 run, Taylor finished the night with a game-high 16 points.
“Sopphie has been our player all year,” Merriman said. “She just came through. I called a timeout with two minutes left and said the defense was going to have to win it, and Sopphie just went and got it. Big-time players are going to make big-time plays.
“And Sopphie is a big-time player.”
The win, which guarantees White Plains a spot in next week’s sub-regional, puts the Wildcats against top-seeded Piedmont, who beat Weaver 71-21 in the first round, at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
White Plains has had no success against the Bulldogs this season, losing both contests by double digits, due to turnovers, nerves and playing not to lose instead of to win, Merriman said.
“A lot of that is Piedmont,” Merriman continued. “Piedmont’s good, and you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. We’ve got to take care of the basketball a little better than we have been and rebound the basketball better. If we do those things then I think we’ll be good.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.