RICHFIELD — Tabiona senior Shaelee Nay made mistakes at critical moments in her team’s semifinal game against Monticello.
But her ability to shake off every errant pass or missed free throw allowed the Tigers to do what they haven’t done for a decade — win a semifinal basketball game.
“You never give up,” Nay said after Tabiona edged fifth-ranked Monticello 31-29 to earn a berth in Saturday’s 1A championship game where the unranked Tigers will face top-ranked Bryce Valley. “Every loose ball, every rebound, you just keep fighting."
The game was a thriller from the opening whistle. The teams traded leads in a defensive struggle that never seemed to favor one team over the other. While Atlanta Black led Monticello with 14 points, Nay led the Tigers with 10 points.
It looked like the Buckaroos might grab the momentum when Black hit two free throws to give Monticello a 29-28 lead with 3:54 left in the game. But a minute later, the Tigers tied it up at 29 when Haidee Lazenby hit one of two free throws.
With 1:10 to go, Sierra Defa hit a back-door layup to give Tabiona a 31-29 lead. The last minute both teams ramped up their defensive efforts, including rebounding with Gracie Rhoades leading the Tigers. She had four critical boards in the final two minutes, including a miss with about 10 seconds left in the game.
Nay was fouled with 8.7 seconds left in the game, but she missed them both and Izabell Slade pulled down the board as her coach called a time out with eight seconds left in the game.
Monticello didn’t even get a shot off, and the Tigers threw a party at center court 10 years in the making.
“We had a party (with the last state championship team) not too long ago,” Nay said. “They said, ‘Girls, you have the exact same potential that we did.’ Ever since we were kids, 8 years old, we told each other to believe in ourselves. We’ve been playing ball forever.”
The Tabiona fans who were in the stands joined the celebration, even lining the walkway to the locker room so they could congratulate and cheer for them.
“It feels awesome,” Nay said of helping the team to the state championship game. “I can barely breath. We knew we had confidence, and we knew we could get the job done.”
Rhoades added eight points to Tabiona’s win, while Tymber Black was Monticello’s second leading scorer with seven points. Black led all scorers with 14 points.
“She’s awesome,” Tabiona head coach Jake Fabrizio said. “She’s a great ballplayer.”
He said their strategy coming into the tournament as a No. 2 seed was to win the game in front of them.
“I told them, ‘Let’s just go get one game at a time’,” Fabrizio said. “It’s just been awesome. I told them, ‘This is a dream that you’ve wanted and we’ve worked so hard to get here.’”
As the crowd and players loudly celebrated their victory, Fabrizio tried to verbalize what it meant to the small town to have a shot at a championship.
“This is big for our community,” he said, noting, “Our crowd was just wild over there. We are just really excited.”
They face Bryce Valley at 5 p.m. Saturday, and while it’s been 10 years since the Tigers won a girls basketball title, the Mustangs will be playing to win their first-ever girls basketball championship. They played for the state title in 2011, but lost to Rich.