ADDISON — Plano East head girls basketball coach Jessica Linson considers her team’s games a race to 50 points. It’s only fitting that when the Lady Panthers reached that mark in Saturday’s regional semifinal, it matched their largest lead of the night.
Junior Kayla Cooper stole the ball and charged up the floor at Loos Fieldhouse before dropping in a short pull-up jumper for a 50-37 lead on Southlake Carroll with 1:55 to go in the fourth quarter. The Lady Panthers’ bench roared with cheers and applause, sensing their historic postseason would see another round.
For the first time since 1993, East is headed to the regional finals — extending its run behind a 56-42 victory over Carroll that doubled as the team’s 18th straight win.
“It’s amazing. It’s so special being able to do this with my teammates. I’m just so glad to be a part of it,” Cooper said.
The Lady Panthers’ third-year point guard had a hand in setting the tone during a game where East trailed for just 20 seconds. Cooper accounted for her team’s first points after scoring off the first of 15 turnovers forced by the Lady Panthers and later helped trigger a first-half barrage from long range.
With Carroll keying its defense on taking away the paint, doubling sophomore Idara Udo on every touch down low, that opened up looks from the perimeter. Cooper and junior Tiana Amos obliged, combining for seven 3-pointers through two quarters for a 34-23 halftime lead — all opposite a Carroll defense that had allowed just 34 points per game.
“That is the beauty of our team,” Linson said. “I figured they’d pack it in on defense — watching them against DeSoto in the playoffs last year and how they handle athleticism — and I told them to be ready to shoot the ball. They just have so much confidence … anyone from Kayla to Tiana to Donavia (Hall) can knock it down. Our roster is so even and that makes it fun to coach.”
Cooper had the hot hand with five 3-pointers on the night on her way to a game-high 21 points to go along with five steals. Among those long-range makes was a step-back 3-pointer to beat the buzzer at the end of an 18-12 first quarter — a shot she said she practices plenty.
“My defender was just playing off on me and I thought I had room for a step-back. She was reaching a lot, so I thought that would help me create space,” Cooper said.
Amos knocked down three of her four makes from the field from deep, tallying 12 points in the win. Udo rebounded from a two-point first half to score nine of her 11 points over the final two quarters and put on a clinic on the glass with seven offensive rebounds. Five of those came in the fourth quarter — a stretch where she logged more offensive boards than Carroll had defensive boards.
“[Udo’s] amazing. She’s such a great rebounder and a great defender,” Cooper said. “She really picked up everything for us, on the boards and on defense.”
Udo helped settle East after a slow start to the third quarter — a stretch where Carroll trimmed its 11-point halftime deficit down to six at 36-30. The Lady Dragons were plenty potent from long range as well, knocking down five 3s through three quarters, including a 13-point first half from Camryn Tade.
Udo countered a 5-0 Carroll run with a bucket in the paint, followed by jumpers from Cooper and Hall to restore a double-digit lead.
The Lady Panthers never let their lead shrink below nine points the rest of the way, falling back on a defense that walled off everything in the half court for Carroll. The Lady Dragons managed just two made field goals over the first six-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter, with possessions resulting in a turnover or blocked shot by East more often than not.
Tade, who scored 13 of Carroll’s 23 points in the first half, was held to two points the rest of the way.
“They just honed in. We’ve been preaching that it’s one game at a time and if you lose, you go home,” Linson said. “We haven’t lost in a while and they don’t want that taste.”
Should East hope to further avoid that taste, it’ll mean avenging a prior loss — next squaring off with South Grand Prairie for the Region I-6A championship. The Lady Warriors handed East its first loss back on Nov. 10 in a 69-53 ballgame.
Ranked No. 4 in Class 6A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, SGP handled Keller in its regional semifinal, 71-40, to extend its postseason and defeated Plano earlier in the week, 60-51, in the regional quarterfinals.
The Lady Panthers and Lady Warriors will rematch at a time and place to be determined.
Rachel Wang with the 3pt'er off the bench! Plano East 36 seconds away from the regional finals, leading Carroll 56-40. pic.twitter.com/RfODED0hI7— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) February 28, 2021