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February 23, 2013

NORTHEAST REGIONAL TOURNAMENT: Lady Broncos ease past Ashville to win regional crown, head to Birmingham (WITH PHOTO GALLERY)

JACKSONVILLE — Goodbye Jacksonville State, hello BJCC.

Holly Pond's girls basketball team will gladly trade one venue for the other after outshooting and outsizing Ashville in a convincing 55-39 victory on Saturday to secure the Class 3A Northeast Regional Tournament championship and a coveted berth at next week's Final 48 in Birmingham.

Natasha Holcombe, Meg Gambrill, Taylor Rowell and Rachel Finley combined for nine of the No. 7 Broncos' 10 3-pointers. Senior standout Taylor Terry accounted for the other, adding a dominant effort in the post against Bulldog center Autumn Swearengin to help keep eighth-ranked Holly Pond's state title hopes intact.

“That's our best 3-point shooting game of the year,” coach Scott Adams said. “I knew we'd have to have that against them because points in the paint are very difficult against Ashville. They came through and knocked them down.

“The character of these girls and the offseason work, you just hope it pays off in the most important games. We hope it continues to pay off.”

The top-10 showdown stayed close for much of the first quarter before Holcombe broke a 7-7 tie with her second trey of the contest. The Broncos (29-5) never relinquished that lead, extending the deficit to 11 by halftime and 18 by game's end.

When the Bulldogs (28-5) did manage to narrow the margin to five in the third quarter, Finley stepped up with 3's from both corners, essentially shutting down any chance Ashville had at a comeback bid.

“We were in it, we were playing our game and then those 3's just kind of changed the momentum,” Bulldog coach Dale Beason said. “And when they seized it, they didn't let it go. You have to give them credit for that.”

With the championship well in hand as the fourth quarter wore on, Adams began inserting a few of Holly Pond's reserves, drawing cheers from the Bronco faithful in each instance.

None was louder than when Lexy Malone made her way to the scorer's table. The senior, who suffered her second ACL tear in as many seasons in late December, has suited up for Holly Pond its last three playoff games, receiving limited playing time in the waning moments of all three.

“Our heart goes out to Lexy Malone,” Adams said. “She wanted to go back and play in the Final Four more than anything in the world. She missed out on her opportunity, but she's with us.”

Terry wrapped up 3A All-Northeast Regional MVP honors with 14 points, three rebounds and two steals. More importantly, though, she kept the Bulldogs' Swearengin from making much of an impact under the basket.

The 6-foot senior center was limited to 10 points and seven rebounds.

“She was strong, and she has the moves,” Swearengin said of the 5-foot-10 Terry. “She's a good post player.”

Terry was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Holcombe, 11 points, and Gambrill, 10.

Adams has been able to rely on hefty contributions from Terry,

Holcombe and Gambrill the entire 2012-13 campaign, but Rowell and Finley have come on strong in the second half of the season. Rowell, 11 points and eight rebounds, has started shooting more — and making more — in the playoffs, while Finley, six points, has progressively improved since joining the starting lineup when Malone went out.

“Taylor Rowell and Rachel Finley are competitors,” Adams said. “They could care less if their name gets in the paper or if their name gets called out.”

The coach was visibly emotional while talking about the way Finley plays now compared to when she was first asked to fill Malone's shoes.

“I really believe Rachel is the player she is today because of the inspiration of Lexy Malone and not wanting to let Lexy down,” Adams said. “Rachel was scared early on, she was a nervous player, but she doesn't look like a nervous player now. She looks like a determined competitor.”

Lexi Lynn, two points, and Kristen Sparks, one, rounded out the Broncos' scorers.

Holly Pond will head to Birmingham on Wednesday to face No. 9 Straughn (32-2) at 3 p.m. The winner will play either Lauderdale County or Midfield on Saturday for the 3A crown.

“It feels amazing. This is what we've been working for since the last time they went,” Holcombe said. “Being able to finally go is surreal, but we have to play it game by game now.”

This will be the Broncos' first appearance at the Final 48 since 2010, when Haley Bagwell, Haley Terry, Courtney Deese and others fell to Sumter County, the eventual champions, in the semifinal.

“I love these girls, their effort, their dedication, their love for each other,” Adams said. “And not only that, but the girls that came so close the last couple of years. We played this for the girls that were kind of standing on their shoulders, who didn't get the opportunity to do this. These girls think of themselves and our girls that haven't made it here as a family, and we did this for them, too.”

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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