BRADENTON - The Out-of-Door Academy girls basketball team shut Bradenton Christian out of the regional playoffs for the first time in 12 years when the Thunder advanced to the Class 1A-District 12 final with a 44-42 win on Thursday.
ODA's Christine LaFrance made two free throws with less than 10 seconds left to give the Thunder a four-point lead and seal the victory on a night in which Bradenton Christian's Tawny Najjar became the school's fifth all-time leading scorer.
The Panthers got within two points twice in the final period, and Tori Mercer's 3-pointer in the final 13 seconds cut the Thunder's lead to 42-40.
"I felt we played hard the whole night, but we just didn't play as smart as I thought we could," Panthers coach Jim Van Til said. "I'm real happy about the potential we have, but we've got to get stronger physically and have a few more of these kind of games where we know what to do when it's real close and the time is running out."
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The Panthers jumped out to an early lead thanks to Najjar's four points in the first minute of the game. But it wasn't long until the Thunder took their first lead of the game with Courtney Waggoner hitting a 3-pointer with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
By the end of the first period, ODA led 13-6 with the addition of a another trey from Mara Fahalee.
"I knew we had to come out early and build up a big lead if we wanted to stay with them, because BCS has a really good team," Waggoner said. "I knew we had to set the pace early, and that shot I had helped a lot."
ODA would hang on to its advantage in the second quarter, taking advantage of several BCS turnovers enroute to a 22-15 lead at the half. Najjar would show a sign of things to come later in the game by scoring six of her game-high 22 points with less than a minute remaining before halftime.
Najjar's performance ended her high school career with 1,165 points, just behind Melanie Raitz's 1,171 at fourth place.
The Panthers came on strong in the second half, rallying to tie the score at 22 on a 3-pointer by Heather Dearlove with 3:21 left in the third. ODA didn't score their first points of the half until Jonna Marchese hit a jumper from the free-throw line with just more than two minutes left in the period. It was the first of six straight ODA points scored by Marchese, who gave the Thunder a four-point lead and some restored entusiasm heading into the final period.
"This is a true sign of dedication and effort," said ODA coach Carl Williams said. "We talked all year about putting ourselves in the position that we're in now, which is to get into the playoffs."
"The biggest thing we had to worry about was that our confidence didn't waiver," Williams said of his team being outplayed during the third quarter. "We knew what the gameplan was, and we were sticking to it. They just stayed hard and never gave up."
OUT-OF-DOOR ACADEMY (44) - Jonna Marchese 4 2-2 10, Erin Kane, Christine LaFrance 3 4-4 10, Ro Marchese 3 3-8 9, Courtney Waggoner 3 5-7 12, Mara Fahalee 1 0-0 3. Totals: 14 12-21 44.
BRADENTON CHRISTIAN (42)- Heather Dearlove 3 0-0 8, Tawny Najjar 7 8-10 22, Brooke McMahon 1 0-2 2, Tori Mercer 1 1-2 4. Totals: 12 9-14 42.
Out-of-Door Academy 13 9 6 16 - 44
Bradenton Christian 6 9 9 18 - 42
3-pointers: ODA 2 (Waggoner, Fahalee); BCS 3 (Dearlove 2, Mercer 1). Total fouls: ODA 17; BCS 14. Fouled out: Ro Marchese (ODA). Records: ODA 11-12 ; BCS 14-11.