It was a pair of top-15 teams and two preseason favorites for the District 8-5A championship.
The importance of the game was never in doubt.
For Kenesha Saygo, only the type of game was in question.
“I felt like we were out there playing rugby,” the Ellison senior point guard said. “I felt like we were playing ourselves ... scrappy, defense all in your face, punching — that’s how it was.”
Matching the Lady Eagles’ patented defensive aggressiveness with a little of their own, the 15th-ranked visiting Tem-Cats scratched back with a 21-6 fourth-quarter effort to secure an early leg up in the battle for 8-5A title with a 48-40 win over No. 11 Ellison on Friday.
“My girls all know that anytime we play a team like Ellison, it’s going to be a dog fight on defense,” said Temple coach Tamarah Sanders, who secured her first-ever road win at Ellison in five years with the Tem-Cats.
“I think me and (Ellison coach Sherry McKinnon) mirror each other when it comes to the defensive game of basketball, and so it was just coming down to who was going to make those baskets and make some stops, and we got some big stops when we needed to.”
After winning its first three district games by an average of 33 points, the Lady Eagles (16-3, 3-1 8-5A) had the advantage throughout the game’s first three quarters, including 34-27 entering the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t finish the ball game,” McKinnon said. “There’s no excuse there. I expect better ball control, I expect better decisions, and to value each and every possession.”
The major swing started with a simple jumper from the charity stripe by 6-foot-3 Temple junior post Tyesha Taylor, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half, six in the fourth quarter, to go along with 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Beginning with Taylor’s glorified free throw with 5:55 to play in the final frame, the Lady
Eagles couldn’t get anything going offensively, either turning the ball over or missing their
scoring opportunities on each of their next eight offensive possessions.
“I felt like we took ourselves out of the game more than anything with turnovers and free throws — we’ve got to make those count — and we couldn’t buy a bucket,” said Saygo, who scored nine points despite sitting for long stretches in foul trouble. “It was hard for us. I felt like we went out into the fourth quarter like we already got it.”
Over that same five-minute span, Temple (17-3, 4-0) capitalized with a 14-0 run highlighted by a deep 3-pointer from Jazzmen Ortiz and a tip-in by Taylor on a contested rebound that tied it at 36 with 3:27 left. Ortiz (game-high 15 points) capped the scoring run with a pair of free throws with 1:02 left to put Temple up 43-36 before a fast-break layup by Ellison’s Deja Pointer stopped the bleeding with 58.6 seconds remaining.
“Some of the turnovers were just us not making the best decisions with the basketball in our hands,” McKinnon said. “I think we started rushing things and not the shots we should have taken.”
Forced to the foul line, the Tem-Cats nailed 5 of 8 from the charity stripe in the final minute to finish 8-of-15 in the fourth, including four from Temple senior Rykeya Johnson.
Lady Eagles 6-foot senior post Kaitlyn Shearer led the way with a double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds), but no other starter managed more than four points.
After shooting 5-of-12 in the first quarter to mount an early 16-6 advantage, the Lady Eagles shot just 29 percent (13-of-45) from the floor for the game and 2-of-7 in the fourth and 2-of-6 from the free-throw line.
“I’m not mad, and I’m not worried, because when we go to Temple, we’re going to take it back to them,” Saygo said. “Tonight they won, but in January, we are going to win.”