PROSPER — There are plenty of ways to describe Friday’s District 9-6A tilt between the Plano East and Prosper girls basketball teams — rock fight, grinder and defensive slugfest, to name a few.
For East head coach Jessica Linson, she saw Friday’s 48-39 victory over a hard-nosed Lady Eagles bunch as a “growth game.”
“One month ago, I don’t know if we could have pulled a game like this out,” Linson said. “But being able to settle down, hit free throws and not get discouraged when we were missing shots, the girls just kept fighting. This is a tough place to play.”
Prosper head coach Trey Rachal attested as much, noting the Prosper gymnasium’s open atmosphere can often make shooting tough on opposing teams. The Lady Eagles schemed around that and made it a point to wall off anything inside for East’s offense.
Coupled with the Lady Panthers’ own penchant for aggression and physicality, the recipe made for a night when points were at a premium on both ends of the floor.
“I think that’s a game that they really enjoy. They have so many good athletes and so much physicality, I think that they want to kind of bully you into a basketball game,” Rachal said. “We wanted to hype our kids up for that challenge, which maybe made the game a little reckless and ugly. We knew that as the smaller team that we had to stand up to that.”
The result was a contest where neither team led by more than six points until inside the final minute of the fourth quarter. By that point, the Lady Panthers held a 42-39 with opportunities to swell that advantage gone awry after converting only two of their first eight free throws attempted in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore Tiana Amos and junior Thalia Merritt eased those shortcomings by sinking six consecutive makes from the charity stripe once Prosper was forced to intentionally foul, which helped East seize its largest lead of the night.
“That’s Tiana and Thalia stepping up into those leadership roles,” Linson said. “They didn’t flip out over missing a few earlier and stayed calm to hit them in the clutch. They showed a lot of maturity there.”
East’s late free throws were all too timely on a night when neither side was able to bank on much consistency on offense. The Lady Panthers’ penchant for bruising opponents for buckets down low didn’t come without a fight from Prosper’s willingness to collapse the paint anytime either of East’s two freshmen posts, Idara Udo and Taylor Haggan, touched the ball.
Even second-chance opportunities were an adventure for the Lady Panthers, who grabbed 16 offensive rebounds but managed only 15 made field goals in the win. That included just one make from the field in the fourth quarter — a put-back by Haggan, who scored a team-high 10 points, off a missed free throw.
East still won the fourth quarter, 13-10, on the strength of a defense that limited Prosper to just 10 made field goals on Friday, with the Lady Eagles having to work around a tough shooting night for senior Maddie Cleary.
Prosper’s leading scorer managed 10 points in the loss but fouled out with 3:27 left in the ballgame and converted just one field goal on the night — an effort spearheaded by East sophomore Ada Anamekwe and Co. to make things tough on the North Texas commit.
“We put Ada on her and she’s one of our best defenders and can guard multiple positions,” Linson said. “It helped out everyone else. We had to touch her up and bring some physicality to try and wear her out, too. On offense, we kept attacking her and making her play and bang down there with our bigs.”
Instead, Prosper hung tough thanks to a sharp-shooting effort from junior Chandler Browning, who drained four 3-pointers en route to a game-high 14 points.
“[Browning has] hit some big shots and has done that for us all year,” Rachal said. “She’s stepped up into a big role for us this year and hit some big ones to keep us right there for a while.”
But with Cleary shackled to the bench over the back half of the fourth quarter, the well ran dry for Prosper, which was outscored 7-2 following her exit.
In victory, East received eight points from Merritt and seven from Amos and junior Kayla Cooper to improve to 2-0 in district play. Prosper, meanwhile, dips to 0-2 as it continues to acclimate to life without McDonald’s All-American Jordyn Oliver, plus numerous other key cogs from the team’s regional finals run last season.
“It’s been fun, in a weird way. When things went south in any game last year, we just made things simple for Jordyn and made sure we had kids on the floor who could shoot or make plays after she made one,” Rachal said. “This year, we’re relying a lot more on ball movement and teamwork and it has to involve five kids doing things together.”
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