The Lady Longhorns managed to get away with it throughout last week’s Region 7AAAAA tournament, relying mostly on defense and timely shots to secure the program’s first region title.
The shooting woes continued Tuesday night against Stephenson in the first round of the Class AAAAA state tournament, and it finally caught up to Kell.
Despite being back on their home court, the Lady Longhorns shot 13.3 percent (4-for-30) from the field in the first half, and the Lady Jaguars took advantage by handing Kell a 60-51 loss.
Kell (22-3) got it together halfway through the third quarter after trailing by 20 and staged a big rally to cut the Stephenson lead to five late in the fourth quarter, but the deficit was too severe.
Now, Kell will have to wait at least another year for its first postseason win, but it did take a step forward by winning the region championship.
“It stings and hurts to lose, but I had to remind them of the year that we had,” Kell coach Craig Hines said. “The biggest thing we did was win that region championship.”
The region championship, however, felt like a distant memory in the first half on Tuesday’s game.
The Lady Longhorns were denied an inside bucket and trailed 12-6 at the end of the first quarter, thanks to Stephenson’s pressure defense. Naomi Stuger accounted for all of Kell’s first-quarter points with a 3-pointer and three free throws.
“If we had made a couple of shots, it would have been a game-changer,” Hines said.
While Kell continued to struggle getting a shot to fall in the second quarter, Stephenson (24-4) started taking advantage of mismatches inside the paint with 6-foot-3 center Caliya Robinson out with a knee injury.
Once the Lady Jaguars focused on the mismatches, they added to their first-quarter lead and had a 12-point lead at the half. Stephenson picked up where it left off in the third quarter by exploiting Kell inside and began the second half with a 10-2 run to go ahead 37-17 with 4:15 left in the third.
That was when Kell snapped out of its shooting slump.
Onyx Henderson scored 10 points in the game, all coming during Kell’s run of 12 unanswered points. She hit two 3-pointers and two layups to help cut the lead to eight with roughly 2 minutes left in the third.
Then Stuger, who led the Lady Longhorns with 24 points, started hitting her layups to keep Kell within single digits. Erin McKinney, who scored nine points off the bench, finished a missed shot to cut the lead to five with over 4 minutes to play in the game.
That was as close as Kell got.
“We had a chance to win in the fourth quarter,” Hines said. “That’s all I can ask for.”
Back-to-back layups by Stephenson put the Lady Jaguars in front by nine. Kell was forced to foul 2 minutes later, and Stephenson made six of its final seven free throws to seal the victory.
Charbonay Johnson and Kaliyah Mitchell did most of the damage for Stephenson, with Johnson scoring 20 points and Mitchell adding 10 points and 17 rebounds.
The Lady Jaguars were a deceiving No. 4 seed. Their only two region losses were to Tucker, which finished undefeated in Region 6AAAAA play.
“We weathered the storm. We knew it was coming,” Stephenson coach Dennis Watkins said. “We told them to keep their composure and continue attacking the basket.”