By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Sherando's first showdown with Northwestern District rival Millbrook back on Jan. 8 was certainly one to forget for the Warriors, who were embarrassed in a 38-point defeat.
So when Sherando squared off with the Pioneers at home in a girls basketball rematch on Friday night, the Warriors simply wanted to prove to themselves that they could indeed compete with the district's perennial power.
Not only did the Warriors hang tough against the district leaders, but they nearly pulled off the upset in front of a large and energetic crowd at Sherando's gym.
The Warriors rallied from a 15-point third-quarter deficit and battled back and forth with Millbrook for most of the fourth period, but the Pioneers knocked down some key free throws late to seal a dramatic 65-61 victory.
"I can't be more proud of how we responded," said Warriors coach Mike Marsh, who remained upbeat shortly after his team fell just short in a wild fourth quarter. "The last time we played them we got in a situation where we just fell off. Tonight we didn't. Tonight we found our heart. I'm very proud of the way we fought through it."
Sherando (10-6, 3-3 Northwestern) watched its early 16-4 lead quickly dissolve with a 20-0 Millbrook run that stretched from late in the second period to nearly the five-minute mark of the third quarter, giving the Pioneers a 37-22 lead.
Trailing 43-28 late in the third, the Warriors closed the gap with an 8-0 run to end the period. Sherando freshman Davina Lane hit two free throws and a runner in the paint, and senior Alaina Combs connected on a short jumper inside to cut Millbrook's lead to nine. Sherando junior Jess Hakel then sliced through the lane for a layup with three seconds left in the third to pull Sherando within 43-36.
The Warriors continued that momentum into the fourth period, as Hakel nailed a 3-pointer, junior Erin Magalis converted a layup off a steal and junior Heidi Brown hit a trey all in the first 45 seconds of the quarter to give Sherando a 44-43 lead.
"No one gave up. We all just came together as a team," said Hakel, who led the Warriors with a game-high 16 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. "We played really hard. We never gave up, we just kept going nonstop and kept playing well as a team.
"It was a really good, competitive game and you can't get any better than that."
Millbrook (14-3, 4-0) reclaimed the lead on a Brenna Cook basket in the paint with 5:50 remaining. Lauren Reed and Joneisha Cain then got hot behind the 3-point arc for the Pioneers, as the duo combined to hit three straight treys to give Millbrook a 55-49 lead with 3:40 to play.
Millbrook held a 60-54 lead following two made free throws by Cain, but Sherando junior Audra Sites nailed a 3-pointer from the wing to pull the Warriors within three with 1:30 to play. Hakel added a free throw several seconds later to trim the deficit to two, and the junior hit two more from the line to tie the game at 60 with 1:08 left to play.
Cook answered with another big bucket inside for the Pioneers and Sherando missed two close looks at the basket on its ensuing possession that would've tied the game. Cook then hit the front end of a one-and-one opportunity at the free-throw line to give Millbrook a 63-60 lead with 27 seconds left.
Hakel knocked down one of two free throws to cut Millbrook's lead back to two with 22 seconds left, but the Warriors couldn't connect on a layup in transition that would've tied the game with 11 seconds remaining. Cook hit two free throws a second later to seal the win for Millbrook.
"We missed a couple chances to get a lead late or tie it late, and that's just something that we have to get better at," Marsh said. "Taking nothing away from Millbrook because they played a very, very good game. They played very solid, and we had two great sections of the game and we played well to them."
Sherando appeared to catch the Pioneers off guard in the first period, as the Warriors quickly raced out to a 12-0 lead while forcing Millbrook into nine first-quarter turnovers. The Warriors took a 16-4 lead into the second period, but were outscored 23-6 in the frame.
"We didn't match their intensity. They came out and they wanted to win," Pioneers coach Kevin Barr said of the first quarter. "I tip my hat to those girls, they played as hard as they could play. We didn't come out and match their intensity, and once we figured out they were going to come out and smack us in the face we decided we better come out and start playing too."
Millbrook got all of its offensive production from five players, as Cook (14 rebounds) and Reed finished with 15 points apiece. Cain had 14 points, Casey Ackerman had 11 and Elizabeth McDonald finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Pioneers.
Brown finished with 13 points for Sherando, while Sites added 11 points.
"We came out a lot more aggressive and with more excitement," Brown said. "Knowing the fact that we can compete with them -- the first game ... we just weren't prepared. [This game] shows that we can play with them."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD