CHARLESTON – Fans watched as seconds ticked off the clock, but for Cameron freshman Maci Neely, time stood still.
Following two incredibly clutch free throws to tie the game by Ashlynn VanTassell with 4 seconds left, Emilee Dobbs tipped Gilmer County’s inbound pass into the hands of freshman Maci Neely, who immediately fired a 3-point shot as the crowd held its breath.
The buzzer sounded as the ball gracefully fell through the net, giving the No. 2 Dragons their first girls’ basketball state title in program history with a 53-50 triumph over top-seeded Gilmer County in the WVSSAC Class A State Championship inside the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center.
“I will remember this for the rest of my life,” Neely said. “I saw it come my way and we only had a couple of seconds left so I thought, ‘I might as well shoot it.’ I think my eyes were closed and I didn’t even know what was happening. I just shot it and everybody started screaming. It was just amazing and I can’t believe it happened. It’s really special for me and I’m so happy for my team. We all worked really hard for this. It’s all we’ve talked about since Day 1.”
Neely was 1-for-9 from the field leading up to that shot but Cameron coach Holly Pettit had full confidence in her.
“Luckily Emilee Dobbs tipped the inbound pass right into Maci’s hands and Maci is great at that step back 3,” Pettit said. “She did not shoot the ball well earlier in the game but we’ll take that last step back 3 to win the state championship.”
Cameron trailed by two with 4 seconds left when VanTassell was at the line with a chance to even the score. After sinking the first one, Gilmer County coach Amy Chapman called a timeout to make her think about the second shot. With what seemed like the world riding on her shoulders, VanTassell stepped right up and drained the equalizer.
“I was losing my mind,” VanTassell said. “I was crying a little bit thinking about every good situation and every bad situation. Then, I got to the line, made the free throw and got too excited and forgot to go back on defense. That’s when Emilee tipped the ball and Maci got it and we won the state championship.”
Pettit had no doubt the sophomore would come through.
“She was a little upset during that timeout when we needed one more but that is every kid’s dream,” Pettit said. “I had all the confidence in the world she was going to make them.”
Along with her clutch free throws, VanTassell dominated in the paint all game long as she racked up 27 points and 19 rebounds for her third double-double of the state tournament, to go along with three massive blocks.
“We knew we had the size advantage and we also knew that if we shot the basketball, Ashlynn was going to be there to rebound,” Pettit said. “She had several putbacks from our misses.”
Ashlee Dobbs was clutch, too, as she always seemed to connect on a shot when the game was at a crucial point. She finished with 11 points, while shooting 5-for-7 from the field and 1-for-2 from 3-point range.
In the final moments, however, she simply had complete faith in her teammates.
“I was on the bench at that time but we were all cheering them on,” Ashlee said. “A few of us were down here last year and we hated losing the state championship so we all wanted this win. Ashlynn has always been good at foul shots so I knew she would hit those. My sister, Emilee, plays good defense and Maci and Kenzie (Clutter) play good defense so I had full faith in them to get the ball back. And Maci has always had a good shot so I had full faith in that last shot, too.”
The entire game was back-and-forth with 11 lead changes. Cameron held a 13-10 edge after one and thanks to 10 points off turnovers, Gilmer County secured a 26-23 halftime advantage.
The Titans forced the Dragons into 29 total turnovers but Cameron’s defense was able to limit the damage for the most part. Neely and Aubre Cain-Loy led the defense with four steals each.
“We knew what we were getting into coming into the game,” Pettit said. “We knew we had to play good defense and we had to handle their pressure. Our girls did a really good job of keeping their cool. I said earlier this week that if we got the ball in the half court sets that we could beat them and that was the case (Saturday).”
VanTassell took over in the third as she delivered seven points during a 9-0 Cameron run as the Dragons went from trailing 32-31 to leading 40-32 with 1:32 left in the stanza.
In the quarter, Cameron outscored Gilmer 14-2 in the paint and 11-5 in second chance points to take a 40-36 cushion into the final frame.
Neither team took more than a one possession lead during the fourth and the game was deadlocked at 46-46 with 3:23 to play.
Trinity Bancroft gave the Titans a brief one-point advantage with a free throw before Cain-Loy put the Dragons back in front with a layup with 2:34 to go.
Bancroft answered again with a quick bucket, while drawing a foul in the process. She sank the free throw to complete the three-point play and give her squad a 50-48 upper hand with 1:00 remaining.
Gilmer had a chance to extend the lead or even put the game away at the charity stripe with 29 seconds left but the Titans missed the first of a one-and-one and, of course, the ball found the hands of VanTassell, who drew a foul and the rest was history.
“Kudos to Gilmer County,” Pettit said. “They are a great basketball team and they are well coached. Win or lose it was a great basketball game.
“During a timeout with 1:59 to play we told them to, ‘Dig deep and play with your heart and everything you have.’ They did that and they showed some grit. I couldn’t be more proud of our girls.”
VanTassell was the Class A tournament leader in points (76), points per game (25.3), field goal percentage (.600), field goal attempts (50), field goals made (30), free throw attempts (27) and free throws made (15).
Clutter had the top two assist performances with 10 and eight as she joined VanTassel on the All-Tournament Team.
Clutter also gave Neely some advice as the freshman entered her first state title game.
“I just told Maci that, ‘We need to keep our patience,'” Clutter said. “It’s nice to have someone back there in the back court like Maci. If I get in a trap, she is always there to pass it to.”