Brad Puckett could finally exhale when he walked off the court. It was a sense of relief — or close enough to it.
“I guess you could call it that,” Puckett said with a laugh.
There had definitely been some tense moments. The Commerce girls’ basketball coach had watched a 15-point lead evaporate before his team pulled out an 48-46 home win over Taylor County Tuesday (Feb.23).
The second-seeded Tigers (17-10) will advance to the Class A-Public Sweet 16 against Armuchee Friday (Feb. 26, 7 p.m.).
“Two years ago, we made the state tournament and didn’t get past the first round down at ECI (Emmanuel County Institute), and so for these kids to move on to the Sweet 16, it means a lot. I know it means a lot to them, too.”
Bryanna Sanders, who finished with a game-high 19 points, scored with 1:55 left to break a 46-46 tie, and that ended being the deciding basket as Commerce got the stops it needed down the stretch.
The Tigers gave the ball back to Taylor County after a travel call with 16 seconds left, but forced a miss from Quanishia Dixon in the paint with time winding down to close out the win.
Puckett said he felt his team played tense for a large portion of the night.
“I kind of hoped that we kind of got it out of our system playing in a big game (the region championship) last Friday to where we weren’t quite so up tight,” Puckett said. “I felt like we came out up tight a little bit again tonight … We were high-charged and just making poor decisions with our passes. I felt like we could pull away from this team if we kept our composure, and we lost it a time or two.”
After leading 23-18 at the half, Commerce looked as if it would run away with the game in the second half as it built a 36-21 lead at the 2:21 mark in the third quarter after a transition layup from Sanders off an assist from Carson Hobbs.
But that’s when Puckett said he saw sloppy play settle in.
“We started making those long, lazy passes,” Puckett said.
The Tigers managed just eight points over the next 8:01, and Taylor County rallied to tie the game 44-44. Sanders broke the tie with an off-balance layup with 2:20 left in the game, but Taylor County’s Jada Miller quickly evened things back up with a basket at the 2:07 mark.
Sanders then tipped the scales with her final basket of the night with 1:55 left, and Commerce held off the Vikings to secure its state tournament win since 2015.
Puckett noted the play of Maggie Mullis in the fourth quarter. The senior, who finished with eight points, knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, twice stretching a four-point lead to seven points.
“Maggie Mullis had an absolutely horrendous night handling the basketball, but then we put her back out there and she hits two huge 3’s after being completely rattled, I felt like, for most of the game,” Puckett said. “That’s a senior for you — that’s a senior coming in with some composure.”
In facing Taylor County, the Tigers drew a No. 3 seed that had finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed in 5-A Public before being upset in the region tournament. The Vikings are a traditional basketball power, with 11 state titles, the most recent of which came in 2015.
“Taylor County has got a rich tradition of girls’ basketball,” Puckett said. “So we knew they weren’t going to come up here, three hours and 15 minutes, and just roll over. They came up here, and they came with it. Credit to them. They played hard.”
Nevertheless, Commerce has advanced, and it will try to earn only the program’s third trip to the quarterfinals since 2001.
“I’m excited for these kids to be moving on, and for our season not to be over yet,” Puckett said. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow.”
TCHS 6 12 10 18 — 46
CHS 14 9 13 12 — 48
TCHS: Jada Miller 15, Jalihah Zackery 11, Jaloyah Zackery 8, Quaishia Dixon 5, Shakeela Williams 2
CHS: Bryanna Sanders 19, Maggie Mullis 8, Carson Hobbs 8, Lauren Massey 6, Sarah Webb 4, Emma Davis 3