Hahnville’s Niara Simmons had not scored since the first quarter, but with just 6.3 seconds left to play on Tuesday night, she stepped to the line with a chance to propel her team back to the Class 5A quarterfinals.
She sank both shots to put the Tigers up by four and moments later the celebration was on in Boutte, as Hahnville survived a physical defensive battle with visiting Ruston, 42-38, in a second round playoff matchup.
The Tigers’ guard said she had to clear her mind of her offensive struggles that came prior – she knew her teammates needed her.
“Everything was going through my mind … how I played, and how I have to do this for my team,” Simmons said. “Make my free throws, take my time. It was on my mind to win.”
Hahnville (17-3), the No. 8 seed in 5A, will face off with No. 1 seeded Ponchatoula in the quarterfinals, with the winner of that game to advance to the girls state basketball tournament in Hammond. Ponchatoula defeated No. 17 Ouachita Parish, 79-53, in round two Tuesday night to advance.
Ah’Jaia Kenner scored 13 to lead the Tigers, who have won 11 straight. Kamryn Bartholomew scored 10 and Kourtney Irons scored eight.
Amani Mewain led Ruston (21-8) with 12 points, while Emerald Parker added eight.
Baskets did not come easily.
Both teams brought suffocating defenses to the gym for the showdown, with Ruston’s size and nearly airtight interior defense juxtaposed with Hahnville’s quickness and relentless pressure upon ballhandlers. Despite the scoreboard’s relative inactivity, the final moments of the game were chaotic and befitting of the defensive slugfest.
After trailing by one entering the fourth quarter, Hahnville made a quick surge to take a 37-32 lead on a Kenner interior basket. Back-to-back Parker baskets pulled Ruston within a tie, and with just over two minutes left, the game was 38 all.
For nearly two minutes, the teams traded possessions but neither gave ground. Bartholomew had a pair of chances to put the Tigers back ahead with approximately a minute left, but neither fell. The Tigers’ floor general turned to her court vision to ensure the next opportunity wouldn’t go to waste, and she found Kenner near the basket, who converted to push Hahnville ahead 40-38 with 32.4 seconds left.
Kenner, who scored six of Hahnville’s 11 fourth quarter points, said finding a way to get baskets on this night came down to mentality.
“I felt like you have to go up strong,” said Kenner, Hahnville’s primary source of interior scoring on the night. “You can’t look to the refs to bail you out. You’ve got to go make it.”
On Ruston’s ensuing possession, the ball popped free and ricocheted down to the other end of the court. It resulted in a turnover and Hahnville’s ball with 13.2 seconds left. After a timeout, the Tigers inbounded the ball and were able to kill about six seconds off the clock before Niara Simmons drew a foul and stepped to the line.
Both free throws were pure, putting Hahnville ahead by four – and onto the Class 5A quarterfinals for the second straight season.
“I think throughout the whole game, she had kind of got into her own head,” said Hahnville head coach Arrianna Smith. “She was trying to draw contact, as she should, but was throwing shots up and I think looking for the officials to make a call. So for her to be the one to close it out … it’s really a tribute to her. She’s a great free throw shooter, but at the same time, she changed her mindset at the end to what it needed to be to come through for us.”
Ruston led Hahnville after each of the first three quarters, including a 25-19 lead at halftime. Neither team led by more than eight points at any point.
Hahnville’s success over the past two seasons has been fueled by defensive efforts like that displayed on Tuesday. When the Tigers have to turn a game, they always seem to find an extra gear – even if it seems they’ve floored it long before.
“You have to dig in. It’s who wants it most,” Kenner said. “We want to go further than we did last year. We’re back in the quarterfinals. We want to make it to state.”
Smith credited the No. 8 seeded Bears for taking the Tigers out of their game in some areas, but added while the Tigers weren’t consistently rolling, her team showed plenty of fight.
“I think we allowed them to pull us out of our game, but at the same time we kept our composure,” said Smith. “As a coach, I’d say you could always play better, even on defense, but we really played with intensity. I think we let up a little (in the second half), they got back into the game, then we hit them hard again. We worked the gameplan, but really fighting to the end and playing defense is why we keep pushing forward.”
It was unfamiliar territory for Hahnville at times. The Tigers have rarely trailed this season.
“We were down by six at halftime, nothing major. They were a little down,” Smith said. “They’re not used to being behind. But it’s six, not 60, not 16, so come out and play that third quarter like it’s 0-0, really playing. I think we did that.”