WACO — As the ball dropped through the net, Kenesha Saygo held her post-release pose — right arm extended above her head, wrist bent forward.
Slowly walking backwards from her release point five feet behind the top of the key, the Ellison senior guard was sending a message — these Lady Eagles weren’t going down without a fight.
But Saygo’s deep 3-pointer with 5½ minutes to play was just the beginning, as she scored Ellison’s last 11 points — including the final two from the free-throw line with 8.5 seconds left — and avenged last season’s embarrassing first-round loss to DeSoto with a 46-44 bi-district win Tuesday at Waco University.
“If I had to get bruised up, punched, kicked, fouled, thrown all over the place, I’ll (take it) because I really wanted to win this,” said Saygo, who needed five ice bags after the game — two for her bruised up knees, two for her ankles and one for her aching back after carrying No. 11 Ellison past No. 13 DeSoto by sheer force of will.
“I feel great, I don’t even care no more (about the pain), because … redemption feels great.”
Despite bearing the brunt of DeSoto’s aggressive press, Saygo put her beaten body on the line when it mattered, driving into the lane and drawing contact to secure the game by shooting 6-of-6 from the charity stripe in the game’s closing minutes.
“Sacrificing myself is just what I’m going to do for my team, coming up clutch, that’s my job — I’m captain — and coach (Sherry) McKinnon said, ‘Do it for your team,’ so that’s what I did,” said Saygo, who led all scorers with 16 points to go along with five steals and six rebounds.
But it was Saygo’s final board, coming as time expired after DeSoto missed two opportunities under the basket in the game’s closing seconds, that meant the most as she let out a roar before spiking the basketball in victory.
Ellison senior post Kaitlyn Shearer led with 10 rebounds — five in the fourth quarter — and junior guard Francesca Patrick added 10 points while gutting her way to eight steals, sparking the Lady Eagles on the defensive end.
“I told them that if they wanted it, they were going to have to go out and take it,” McKinnon said.
After turning the ball over 38 times last season in a 43-22 ransacking by DeSoto in the first round, Ellison only had 14 on Friday — 10 of which came in a sloppy second quarter in which DeSoto’s slapping at the ball forced Ellison turnovers on nine of 11 consecutive possessions during a 6-minute stretch.
“That’s the heart of a champion — you take a lick and you keep on ticking,” McKinnon said.
If not for a pair of game-tying layups by sophomore post Brianna Gray, Ellison might have seen DeSoto pull ahead rather than just tie it at 19-19 entering the final 1½ minutes of the first half. Instead, Patrick was there to bite back, stealing the ball twice from DeSoto’s Chastadie Barrs on back-to-back possessions over the final 30 seconds and converting them for three points and a 22-19 lead at the break.
“She has the best hands on the team,” McKinnon said of Patrick. “She was the one that was definitely hitting the floor and getting right back up, and she wanted it.”
DeSoto and Ellison battled back and forth in the third quarter with the lead changing hands three times before DeSoto’s Najala Howell and Camesha Davis converted back-to-back Ellison turnovers for a 29-26 lead with 3:20 left in the frame.
Tied at 35 after Gray nailed a mid-range pull-up jumper with 6:42 left in the fourth, Shearer pulled down four boards on the next two possessions, Patrick ripped the ball out of the hands of DeSoto’s massive 6-foot-4 center Adrienne Lewis and Saygo let it rip.
“This year we’ve been talking about ‘redemption’ a lot, and to come out here and beat DeSoto … it’s very, very overwhelming,” Saygo said.