CLEARWATER — Two similarly successful teams in Clearwater and Countryside combined for one exciting game.
Facing each other Tuesday night in a brilliant, all-out girls basketball battle, one unfortunate play turned the tide.
Leading by two points with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Clearwater stole the ball and looked to tap out the clock, but tough defense forced the ball-handler to the floor near midcourt. With no one to pass to, she instinctively called timeout with 2.5 seconds left but the Tornadoes had used up their allotment. A technical foul was called and November Morton sank both free throws to tie the score. From there, Countryside took advantage of Clearwater foul trouble to pull away to a 69-63 overtime victory.
"It was just a mishap at the end," Tornadoes coach Allen Williams said. "She got caught up in the moment. It can happen."
After struggling offensively in the first half, Clearwater (13-2) amped up its full-court pressure defense and it sparked the team on both ends of the floor.
The prime driving force was senior Carrie Lee, who ran the offense effectively, dropped in nine of her 12 points in the second half, hauled down seven rebounds and contributed three clutch steals that helped put the hosts on top.
She connected well with sophomore D'Mya Ferguson (team-high 20 points with a pair of 3-pointers and six boards).
"Carrie played a great game," Williams said. "She did all the right things, played the passing lanes and moved the ball well."
But she fouled out in the late going and the Cougars (17-1) took advantage behind dynamo Misha O'Neal.
The senior buzzsaw helped Countryside build up leads as large as nine points (36-27 with 2:30 left in the third quarter). When Clearwater's inevitable surge led to a fourth-quarter lead, O'Neal responded with five of her nine steals and 10 of her game-high 23 points to help keep the Cougars competitive.
"I love defending, I love defense," O'Neal said. "Defense wins games."
Morton (22 points, seven rebounds) did her part, hooking a beautiful entry pass to Zena Elias (nine points, 13 rebounds) for a layup 20 seconds before her tying free throws.
In OT, five Countryside players went 9-for-12 from the charity stripe to pull away for the win.
"Sometimes we played really, really well, and sometimes we didn't," said Cougars coach Tony Klemmer. "There were stretches where we didn't handle the ball well (suffering 32 turnovers) but our senior leaders (Morton, O'Neal and Elias) really took over at the end."
And Williams concluded: "I wish I could play 20 of these games. Ten-point wins or losses don't get your team better. These are the games that get you better."