HOWARD – A tumultuous first-round tournament game came down to the final minute on Tuesday night.
East Knox (13-10) took the lead over visiting West Jefferson (9-11), 38-37, on a short-corner jumpshot from senior Taylor Nunamaker with 21 seconds left. The Bulldog student section erupted as the shot rattled home, and Roughrider head coach Tim Converse called a timeout.
What happened next sealed the Bulldogs’ fate. West Jefferson took the ball the length of the court and found freshman Taylor Roberts on the block, who turned and banked in a shot to put the Roughriders back up 1 with 10 seconds left.
With one final opportunity to respond, East Knox got the ball to its leading scorer, junior Meggan Bartok. She charged from the far baseline and made it all the way to the block before dribbling it off her foot with 3.7 seconds left.
Just like that, the Bulldogs’ best season since 1997 was over.
West Jefferson emerged victorious, 39-38. The victors hugged and high-fived at midcourt as the final buzzer sounded – they would live to see another day – while several East Knox players broke down.
“I hate tears. I hate them,” East Knox head coach Chip Pozderac, emotional herself, said after the game. “It’s almost easier to lose by 8 or 10 than by 1.”
It was the final game for East Knox’s five seniors – Sydney Buckingham, Ashley Van Hoose, Cassidy Gebhardt, Abby Bailey and Taylor Nunamaker.
“You know, these seniors played so hard for me,” Pozderac said. “But again, they did stuff this year that nobody thought we could do.”
It was, indeed, a landmark year for the Bulldogs. They recorded their first winning season in 21 years by tallying 13 wins, second-most in the KMAC behind perennial powerhouse Cardington. They lost six games by fewer than five points, including Tuesday night’s heartbreaker. And they finished tied for third in the KMAC, four spots higher than their seventh-place finish last year.
That, Pozderac said, is something to be proud of.
“I’m very proud of what the kids accomplished, you know, where they’ve come,” Pozderac said. “You know, three years ago we were getting hammered by 50, 60 points. Now people are paying attention to us.”
East Knox certainly had West Jefferson’s attention on Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs led until the 6:02 mark in the third quarter, when West Jefferson sophomore Megan McClish swooshed a wing three to give the visitors a 28-27 advantage.
From there, it was a back-and-forth affair. Roberts scored twice on post turnarounds to help extend the Roughrider lead to 5, but Nunamaker ended the third quarter with a transition lay-in that cut the deficit to 3.
The Roughriders used tenacious defense and solid ball control to keep the Bulldogs off the scoreboard until the 2:16 mark in the fourth quarter. By that point, West Jefferson had built a 6-point lead.
“It was, ‘Are they going to believe in themselves?’” Pozderac said of the team’s mindset.
They sure did.
Nunamaker hit a free throw before Bartok nailed a wing three, bringing the crowd to its feet. Then Nunamaker leapt into a passing lane for a steal, taking it coast-to-coast before drawing a foul on a layup attempt. She went 1-for-2 once again at the foul line, pulling the Bulldogs within 1.
East Knox completed its 7-0 run with Nunamaker’s baseline jumper, which preceded the game-winning shot by Roberts.
Despite its late-game surge, East Knox struggled against West Jefferson’s 2-3 zone all night long. The Roughriders were active in it, flying out to shooters on the wings and double-teaming Bartok and Nunamaker inside. West Jefferson held Bartok to 9 points (she averaged 14 per game in the regular season), using length and physicality to make every shot difficult.
“Their zone gave us fits,” Pozderac said. “We don’t play well against a zone.”
The Roughriders outscored the Bulldogs 15-8 in the third quarter. East Knox struggled to convert offensively while West Jefferson got hot from the perimeter, which ultimately shifted the momentum in the game.
“We shot the ball, we just didn’t rebound the ball. And I don’t know how many times we were yelling to ‘Go follow your shot, follow your shot,’” Pozderac said. “So our rebounding – I would bet you a nickel they outrebounded us that third quarter. And that’s the difference in the ballgame right there.”
On the defensive end, the Bulldogs had no answer for Roberts, who recorded a game-high 15 points. She didn’t attempt a shot outside the lane, but she didn’t need to; Roberts was able to back Bulldog defenders down in the post and make close shots over double-teams all night long.
“Shoot, that kid’s a freshman. I’m glad we don’t play them on a regular basis,” Pozderac said. “She’s just big, strong.”
East Knox was able to contain Roberts early on, however, which allowed the Bulldogs to jump out to a 6-2 lead after one quarter. Neither team scored until the 3:46 mark in the first stanza, as the unfamiliar foes felt each other out.
Cold shooting quickly became a thing of the past in the second quarter, when East Knox and West Jefferson combined for 34 points. Roughrider sophomore Gabbie King went berserk, scoring all 13 of her points in the period. She scored in a variety of ways – on spot-up threes, runners and put-backs – keeping West Jefferson apace.
East Knox saw scoring from four different players in the second quarter, including junior Morgan McCauley, who knocked down back-to-back threes to give the Bulldogs a 19-13 lead with 2:34 left until halftime. Two King buckets narrowed the East Knox lead to 23-19 at intermission.
Nunamaker led East Knox in scoring on Tuesday with 11 points. Bartok had 9, while McCauley and Buckingham each tallied 8. Roberts and King combined for 28 of West Jefferson’s 39 points. Carlie Powell added 8 for the Roughriders, who traveled 90 minutes for a hard-earned victory.
West Jefferson will head home to face Johnstown in the second round of the tournament on Saturday afternoon. East Knox will reflect on a momentous season before looking ahead. The Bulldogs will bring several key playmakers back next year, including Bartok, McCauley and freshman starting point guard Alexandria Magers, who played in all 23 games this season.
“Now we just start looking at the summer and where we’re going to build for next year,” Pozderac said. “I’ve got a good core group of kids coming back.”