St. James head coach Terry Wells has been waiting to see one of his players step up late in a close game this season. When The Lady Tigers hosted Union on Thursday, Jan. 24, he most certainly saw that.
With St. James trailing by three and the clock winding down, Riley Whitener stood with the ball in her hand well behind the three point line. She paused, then fired, before the entire gym exploded as the shot swished to tie the game and force overtime. The Lady Tigers then used that momentum to pull out a 65-59 overtime win. Whitener reflected on those final moments of regulation after the game.
"I was looking to see if anybody else was open and I was like 'well, better shoot it,'" said the St. James sophomore with a laugh. "I don't know, I got pretty good form on it and I thought I was going to miss, but I didn't."
But how did the Lady Tigers get to that point? It started with a rough first quarter. After bottling up Union for most of the first quarter, the Lady Wildcats exploded from behind the arc. Union took their first lead of the game with 2:17 left in the first quarter on a three by Julie Overstreet and stretched that lead out to 18-12 by the end of the quarter. Union knocked down six threes in the opening quarter, which put St. James on their back foot.
Despite the late scoring push from Union in the first, St. James kept battling. Hannah Marcee kept St. James in the game early, scoring eight of their 12 points in the first quarter, before adding four more points from the charity stripe in the second. A much needed three from Savanna Riccetti cut the deficit to two points early, before Marcee was eventually able to tie the game at 20 at the free throw line. St. James had a strong defensive quarter, but Union was able to break through again late, scoring five unanswered points to take a 25-20 lead into the break.
As they did all night long, the Lady Tigers refused to back down. Bailey Wells kicked off the scoring in the second half, before a basket and a free throw from Marcee tied the game. St. James had some opportunities to take the lead, but couldn't get anything to fall before another five point run from Union. Whitener gave St. James a big spark with a three mid-way through the quarter, cutting the deficit to 30-28, but St. James couldn't quite close the gap. Union seemed to have a response for every St. James basket and finished the quarter with a 43-34 lead, despite a great effort from Whitener, who scored nine points in the quarter.
Union opened the fourth quarter with a pair of free throws to stretch their lead out to 11 points, but St. James started to chip away. First it was a three point play from Marcee to, quickly followed by a basket from Ashlyn Rinehart to cut the gap to six. Megan Siedhoff then hit a free throw for Union, before Marcee knocked down a three to bring the score to 46-42. A layup from Mikaela Donnelly cut the deficit to two points, before Marcee tied the game with 3:18 left to play. Unfortunately, Marcee wouldn't be on the court down the homestretch, as she fouled out seconds later. Kaylee Bunch then hit a free throw after the foul to give the lead back to Union.
What followed that was a back and forth affair at the free throw line. Wells gave St. James the lead multiple times down the stretch, first on free throws with just over two minutes left, then again on an inbound play with just under a minute remaining. Moments after Wells gave St. James a 50-49 lead, Riccetti committed her fourth foul, which sent Bunch to the line to hit a pair of free throws. St. James then turned the ball over with 35 seconds left to play, but Emily Gaebe was only able to convert on one free throw for Union. St. James then went to take the lead on the next drive, but a three from Rinehart fell short. Wells came up with the rebound, but couldn't convert and was then called for a foul, while going for a jump ball with 5.2 seconds left to play. Siedhoff had a chance to put St. James away, but she was only able to make one of her two free throw attempts to set up the dramatic three from Whitener.
"We caught a break," said coach Wells with a chuckle. "A lot has to go down there. She has to miss, we have to get the rebound. We have to push and then we have to get a decent shot off before we turn it over. It all fell into place. She hit a shot that is tough and fun and it's a moment the kids will always have. That's probably what's most important."
The entire gym exploded after the three from Whitener and the St. James bench rushed the court to congratulate her, but there was still basketball left to be played. The two teams went into overtime tied at 53, but St. James was riding high on that momentum. Neither team scored until 2:36 remained in the overtime period, where Aly Bullock came up with a huge steal and got a pass out to Wells, who was fouled. Wells knocked down both free throws to start a run for St. James. Union turned the ball over on their next drive for going back over the half-court line. Union head coach Dusty Weiskopf wasn't thrilled with the call and was called for a technical for arguing. Rinehart then knocked down a pair of free throws and scored another basket on the ensuing possession, giving St. James a 59-33 lead. Another basket from Whitener stretched that lead to eight. The Lady Tigers were a little shaky down the stretch, letting Union get four easy points and turning the ball over, but they were able to settle in and get late free throws from Wells and Riccetti to finish off a thrilling 65-59 win.
Wells was especially excited for Whitener, who had a career game with 21 points along with forcing overtime.
"Honestly, the game was so tight and intense all the way that I wasn't even aware she had 21. I knew she hit some big threes and we needed someone to finally step up and have the ball go in the basket for us," said the St. James head coach. "It's awesome for her. She will never forget that. Never. As long as she lives, she's going to remember tonight and that's awesome."
While she wasn't on the court at the end of the fourth and overtime, another big performer was Marcee, who scored 20 points and kept St. James afloat early both on the scoreboard and with great rebounding. Coach Wells thinks his sophomore forward is on the brink of being a really special player.
"Hannah always plays so hard and she is so capable and so talented," said coach Wells. "All we've got to do with Hannah is tighten a couple of screws on a few things and she's going to blossom into an All-State caliber player. She's very skilled and she has all the tools and she shows it at different times. When she puts it all together, it's going to be scary."
Wells also added 10 points for St. James, all of which came in the second half and overtime. Rinehart chipped in with six, Riccetti had five and Donnelly scored three points in the victory.
Union entered the contest with a record of 11-4, so they were no slouches. Add in the fact that it was a conference game and this was a big win for St. James. Coach Wells hopes this gives his team the confidence they need down the stretch.
"A win in the Four Rivers Conference is a good win. The league is extremely tough this year and Union is a really good team that plays you tough every night," said coach Wells. "We lost three straight games against super tough teams and we finally get a win against a tough team. Hopefully that will keep their confidence up and keep building towards our goals."
Whitener thinks this win was a big step in the right direction and will certainly be a big confidence booster.
"We're going to have a lot of confidence going into our Monday game at home," said Whitener. "That's going to be a tough game too, but we'll get it."
The Lady Tigers will start off a busy week next week with a home game against Francis Howell on Monday.