ONEIDA — It took until the latter parts of the third quarter for the Tellico Plains Lady Bears to shoot the ball like a team capable of winning a championship.
Down 20 on the road to the defending region champions in Oneida (23-6), the Lady Bears had to push for a comeback for the ages.
However, time marches on — as did Oneida to a 59-51 win over Tellico Plains on March 3, giving the Lady Bears their first loss of the season.
“I think the fact that we shot the ball without any reservation and that we attacked (helped). We had people that were ready to score instead of just standing still — we had stood still a lot,” Tellico Plains head coach Gary Tucker said.
Sophomore Emma Moore’s presence is what began to turn things around for Tellico Plains (24-1). Though Moore was brought on for a defensive purpose, she started the scoring that got the Lady Bears moving.
“We have practiced a certain defense, and when she was in there I saw a chance to use it. We did a good job with it,” Tucker said.
Joell Stinnett followed suit with a free throw and a 3-pointer, followed by a triple from Maggie Hooper. Kori Hamilton then got her first basket of the half to drop. Hamilton, a junior, forced a turnover and moved the ball out to Chloe Ratledge, who scored her only points of the night.
Tellico Plains went on a 12-5 run and cut the score to 45-31 at the end of the third quarter.
One of the bigger issues the Lady Bears ran into throughout the night was slowing down an Oneida offense. The Lady Indians, who have won 15 straight, finished with three shooters — Jacey Manis, Gracie Martin and Kelsey Pike — in double figures. Katelyn Stiltner was a basket short of making it four.
Oneida also outshot Tellico Plains 7-to-5 on 3-pointers.
“It is difficult because they move the ball so well. Kudos to them, they played well. They did a lot of good things, and they have a good team. But I like my team,” Tucker said.
Despite trailing at the glass in the first half, the teams unofficially matched each other with 28 rebounds. Hooper and Ratledge had eight each while Emily Wusner led Oneida with 10.
On the Lady Bears’ side, their main two 3-point threats, Hooper and Ratledge, finished with one. Hamilton had two in the first quarter — where the Lady Bears maintained pace.
Stinnett turned into a scoring threat for Tellico Plains. Normally playing more inside, Stinnett hit two 3-pointers and finished with 19 points — marking the first time she has led the Lady Bears in scoring on the season.
Her previous scoring high was 15 against Hiwassee Dam on Feb. 8, and she is now averaging 7.5 points per game.
“We practiced the same way, and we tried to do our best and to get better in what we do,” Tucker said. “We had several shots that normally fall that did not fall. I don’t have a problem with any player or any attitude. The hustle was there, and the heart was there — they wanted it. We did some good things, but we missed several opportunities that we had. We just didn’t cash in — that is part of the game.”
Moving into the fourth quarter, Tellico Plains kept the tempo going. Stinnett started the quarter 5-for-6 at the line, and the fouls she drew forced Oneida to make changes off the bench. Hamilton added a basket followed by Stinnett’s second 3-pointer, cutting the score to 49-41.
Wisner hit two 3-pointers for Oneida to keep them out in front, but Jaden Hollinghead added her first basket of the half followed by Hooper’s 3-pointer to get the deficit down to six points.
The Lady Bears did not foul late, allowing Oneida to milk most of the final minute, and earning their second straight Region 2-A Championship.
The Lady Bears will continue their season with the Class A Sectional round. Tellico Plains will travel to the Region 1-A Champions North Greene (24-7) for a berth in the 2021 Class A State Tournament.
The Lady Huskies return all but two from the squad that reached the state quarterfinals last season.
The Lady Bears have reached the state tournament only once in program history — a 1984 squad that reached the semifinals, coached by Tucker.
For Tellico Plains’ seasoned coach, he sees comparisons with the team that earned that lone berth, but also recognizes how stiff the competition in girls’ basketball has become.
“There are comparisons. I don’t really know how to say, but we do a lot of things the same,” Tucker said. “Time is different, you know. Girls are so athletic now, and there are a lot of good teams out there. That team is a good team and a special team, but they all are to me.”
While the Lady Bears do continue their season, the loss ends the hope of an undefeated campaign, and having your first loss this far down the road can result in different responses from a team.
“We have to put it behind us, and look forward,” Tucker said. “We have to prepare for what we can do as a team and as individuals,” Tucker said. “(We need to) guard, play good defense and hold onto those rebounds. We need to play Lady Bear basketball.”
The Lady Bears will travel to North Greene on Saturday, March 6. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.