When the Lady Blazers needed a hero, Emma Martin answered the call.
The junior guard came up with a massive block on guard Marisa Snodgrass’s would-be game-winning shot to force overtime. The Lady Blazers (22-5, 20-4 Gulf South Conference) then pulled away from the Montevallo Falcons (12-17, 12-12 GSC) to win 71-66 in the quarterfinal round of the GSC Tournament.
The No. 4 seed Lady Blazers move on to Birmingham, Alabama, to face top-seeded Lee (23-5, 21-3 GSC) on March 4 at 1 p.m.
While Martin scored just five points in the game, senior guard Jirah Ards knows that her contributions were vital to grabbing the win.
“Everybody does something even if they’re not scoring for us,” Ards said. “Everybody’s working. Everybody’s a tough player, and Emma, I’m so proud of her for the block. … Emma always blocks our shots in practice, so I kind of expected that.”
Though the Lady Blazers held firm defensively late in the game, they got off to a rough start.
The Falcons found early success from the perimeter, turning an early 4-0 deficit into an 8-6 lead thanks to back-to-back threes. In all, the Falcons made more three-pointers (three) than two-point shots (two) in the first quarter as they got out to a 13-12 lead.
It was just the opposite for the Lady Blazers. The Lady Blazers went 0-3 from beyond the arc and 6-17 from the floor in the first quarter.
Those trends continued into the second quarter as the Lady Blazers again went 0-3 from outside while Montevallo knocked down five more treys to build a 34-29 halftime lead. For the half, the Falcons shot 50% from three (8-16).
Head coach Deandra Schirmer believed that her team was giving up too many open looks in the first half.
“They got too many wide-open shots, so [at halftime] we talked about making them put it to the floor, not just closing out with a high hand,” Schirmer said. “They’re gonna hit that shot. So we had to make them put it to the floor, and in that, you saw a little bit more bounce from us because we were hand checking and stuff, but making that adjustment at halftime.”
Schirmer added: “Then we also talked about how all year our defense has been solid and our defense has been how we win games. We’re top in the conference defensively, but we’re nowhere near the top in offense. We’ve got to rely on that defense, and we talked about defensive rebounding. We were getting outrebounded in the first half as well, so making those adjustments at halftime and really getting back to the gritty plays and making sure we were staying disciplined throughout those defensive plays [was important].”
Those defensive adjustments paid off in a big way for the Lady Blazers.
The Lady Blazers limited the Falcons to just 2-16 from three after halftime. The offense took advantage, opening up the second half on a 16-6 run to go up 45-40. However, the Falcons still hung around, going on a 6-0 run to close the third quarter and take a 46-45 lead into the fourth.
Ards took command of the Lady Blazers’ offense in the fourth quarter, leading the team with eight points. Ards finished the game with a team-high 18 points on 7-10 shooting.
Still, the Falcons continued to hang around, answering the bell to keep VSU from pulling away. The Falcons were even able to take a 59-58 lead with a minute remaining.
However, Ards would not be denied.
Ards rebounded a missed three-pointer from Martin and was then fouled by forward Shyan Flack, sending her to the line. After missing her first free throw, Ards nailed the second one to tie the game and eventually force overtime.
While Schirmer thought Martin’s block was a big play, she also thought that Ard’s play at the rim was just as big. Schirmer also credited the crowd in The Complex for making things difficult for the Falcons.
“The block was a big play by Emma Martin at the end of regulation, but also the rebound to get out and the offensive rebound down here to tie the game was a huge play by Jirah Ards,” Schirmer said. “It was big play after big play. We’re always thankful to have the complex that was rocking in here. The crowd played a huge factor. … All in all, it was a group effort, but it was really making sure that we were poised down the stretch and that we were able to persevere.”
The Lady Blazers continued to come up with big plays in the extra session. Junior guard Tamiya Francis led the charge in overtime, knocking down a corner three to put VSU up five and getting a pair of steals. Francis finished with 16 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
Schirmer believes that Francis’s big game experience helped spark her overtime heroics.
“I think that’s the veteran nature of Tamiya,” Schirmer said. “Tamiya has played in some really big games, and she knows time and place and situation. We talked about all the time of playing smart and playing together. Obviously, she can’t double down and help on the post and get those steals unless she’s put herself in that position where she knows she’s being smart. The post turns her back, and so it was just a smart heads-up play by her hitting the shot and then being poised enough to go down and get those steals.”
From there, VSU closed out the game at the free throw line.
With a return trip to Birmingham on deck, Schirmer wants to right the wrongs of last season.
“We always talk about Taking Back Birmingham,” Schirmer said. “We do the TBB because we’ve had some not so great memories in Birmingham, losing in the Elite Eight and losing in the conference tournament last year. We want to put our own mark on it. We want to take back Birmingham. We want to make sure that we show what the Valdosta State Lady Blazers basketball [team] is all about and that we put a good effort forward in these games.”
Additionally, the Lady Blazers clocked in at No. 5 in the latest South Region rankings for the NCAA Division II Tournament. While the win gives VSU some breathing room, that’s not going to change how they approach their trip to Birmingham.
“We talked about right now,” Schirmer said. “You got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. There’s pressure on everybody. Do I think we’re an underdog? Yes. Do I like being an underdog? Yes. Do I like putting the pressure on other people because they know they gotta lace it up with a team that’s not going to fit, that’s not going to quit and that’s not going to back down? Absolutely. I like our odds. I like our odds in both of them.”
Written by Austin Bruce, Sports Editor. Photo courtesy of VSU.