Playing in their home gym, the Commerce girls’ basketball team was trying to make the third time the charm against Lake Oconee Academy in the GHSA Region 8-A Public tournament championship game Friday, Feb. 19. But the undefeated and top-ranked Titans had other ideas.
Senior guard Destiny McClendon scored 24 points — including 14 in the fourth quarter — as Lake Oconee Academy flexed its muscles early, held off a spirited Commerce effort and pulled away late to claim the title with a 54-36 victory.
The Titans (23-0) will host Macon County, the No. 4 seed from Region 5, in the first round of the state playoffs next week. Commerce (16-10) finished as region runners-up and will host Region 5 No. 3 seed Taylor County Tuesday (Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m.
Commerce entered Friday’s game having won 14 of their last 15 contests — the only blemish during that stretch coming in a 64-41 setback to Lake Oconee Academy on Feb. 13 — and was looking to pull off a major upset against a team that has had only one game this season end with a margin fewer than 10 points.
But the night got off to a rough start, as the Titans scored the first eight points of the game, stretched their advantage to 16-2 after the first quarter and never led by fewer than six points the rest of the way. Commerce didn’t record its first basket until a transition layup from Lauren Massey with 2:19 left in the first quarter, and the Tigers missed their first seven free throws, finishing 7-of-16 from the line for the night.
“These kids haven’t played in a game this big before, and we were playing really tight with missed free throws, layups, everything,” Puckett said. “We were just a nervous wreck, so I called an early timeout and actually laughed and told them to relax. I said, ‘This is fun. The atmosphere is great. This is what you play for. Don’t start scoreboard watching; just play with perfect effort and try to win every play.’
“Obviously, they won a few more plays than we did, but they’ve got a really good team. I don’t think a Class A school has really pushed them like we did for a lot of tonight, and we’ve got to build on this going into the state tournament. They’re on the other side of the bracket, and it should be our goal to see them again later on down the road.”
After digging themselves into the early hole, the Tigers tightened up their defense in the second quarter and got into an offensive rhythm, using a 6-0 run to trim the deficit to 22-16 with two minutes left in the first half. But McClendon, who had been held in check for most of the first half, buried a 3-pointer at the other end of the floor to boost the Titans’ lead back up to nine, and that would turn out to be a common theme throughout the night.
Commerce cut Lake Oconee Academy’s lead to seven on a few occasions in the second half, but McClendon, a Chattanooga commit, slowly took over the game, knocking down a three to put the Titans up 37-27 with six minutes to play and going 9-of-10 from the free-throw line down the stretch to salt the game away.
“We just wanted to know where she was at all times and were constantly having to talk on defense,” Puckett said of McClendon. “She’s going to be a Division I basketball player, and thank goodness she’s a senior. She’s our region player of the year for good reason. We knew we had to try to slow her down. You’re not going to stop her. Nobody has been successful at stopping her. We just hoped to slow her down enough and get enough shots to fall our way, but a lot just didn’t fall tonight.”
Commerce now turns its attention toward a Taylor County team that is 10-5 on the year and has played mostly a region schedule, making the Vikings a bit of a mystery, Puckett said.
“Nobody on the outside knows a whole lot about that region other than it’s always been a strong basketball region, so it’s going to be a tough one for sure,” said Puckett, whose team will look to keep its turnovers down and focus on generating points on the inside.
“We’re not a great 3-point shooting team, but if we can take the ball to the basket good things will happen,” Puckett said. “And we’ve got to hit our free throws. We’ve been a good free-throw shooting team the second half of the year until tonight, and I attribute a little bit of that to just being hyped up and nervous. We’ve got to learn how to handle that a little better, and hopefully we will learn from tonight and take that into next week.”
And Puckett is hoping the home crowd will play a key role in the first-round game.
“Our crowd was amazing tonight, and that’s why our girls thanked them when we got the (runner-up) trophy,” he said. “Our crowd has been supportive of us all year. They were in here loud (for the tournament semifinals Thursday) as we played Towns County in a really tough game, and tonight they showed up and showed out. I love the Commerce community, and I love the way they support our kids.
“We need them in here again next week for sure. It’s going to be big.”
CHS 2 14 8 12 — 36
LOA 16 9 8 21 — 54
CHS: Raven Parks 8, Carson Hobbs 7, Anna Taylor 6, Lauren Massey 6, Bryanna Sanders 5, Emma Davis 4
LOA: Destiny McClendon 24, Hannah Heinen 11, Piper Bosart 10, Jada Williams 3, Georgia Bosart 3, Jane Monachello 3