A loss would also break the team apart, despite only having three seniors.
“I’m not saying it’s just the Strains, I’m saying it’s the whole nucleolus of this bunch that’s been together since second or third grade,” Bobcats coach Larry Strain explained. “I think there was pressure of knowing this could be the last time they got to play together. It was a pretty emotional locker room before we came out on the court to warm up.
“Very rarely do I get nervous or uptight. But, to be honest with you, today I was more nervous and uptight than I’ve been in a while. I knew this could be the last time this bunch of young ladies would be together completely. I was little anxious about playing the No. 3 team.”
Although Woodland guard Leah Strain’s nerves caused her to throw up prior to tip-off, the junior played composed once the game started, scoring 14 of Woodland’s 18 points to give the Bobcats a seven-point lead after a quarter of play.
“I had a little bit of motivation before the game,” Leah Strain said. “Dad usually tries to find us what we call ‘blackboard material.’ It’s what we hear that other teams say about us, so that was brought back to me in the first quarter.”
North Sand Mountain’s shooting improved in the second quarter, eventually giving the Bison (29-4) a 25-23 lead with 2:56 left in the half. The Bobcats (31-2) and North Sand Mountain went back and forth from there, scoring on a combined nine consecutive possessions during the leading-changing run. The two teams entered the half tied 30-all after Shanna Strain’s half-court heave rimmed out.
“We knew that they were a very good 3-point shooting team,” Larry Strain said. “We felt like if they shot the threes and knocked down the threes all game long, we were going to come up on the short end of the stick. We gave up some baskets letting them drive, but tried to take the three away from them.”
After nearly the entirety of the third quarter stuck to script, a small 5-2 Woodland run at the end of the third gave the Bobcats a 46-40 lead and set the tempo for the fourth. Sparked by Leah and Shalyn Strain, Woodland’s small run became a 15-5 run, giving the Bobcats a 13-point lead with 3:36 left.
“I knew they were going to try to stop Leah in some way,” Larry Strain said. “They didn’t play bulldog man-to-man quite as tough as I thought they would because they held (the ball) a lot more, trying to keep Leah from going to the basketball.”
With less than three minutes remaining in the game, the Strain Squad began stepping to the foul line with Amy, Shanna and Shayln Strain all knocking down shots. However, it was ball handling that Larry Strain said won the game for Woodland. The Bobcats only recorded one turnover throughout the game, which Leah admitted was her doing during the postgame press conference.
Leah Strain finished the contest with a game-high 29 points. Shalyn Strain added 13 and Jaide Walker recorded 10. North Sand Mountain was led by Hannah Vest, who scored 19 points, while Keely Ellison added 13 and Cassidy Romans scored 12.
“You could always say (the draw) isn’t fair, but you have to play the ballgame anyway,” Bison coach Tracy Vest said. “That’s just the way the bracket fell, and the two teams fought. We came into this like it was a championship game. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
Woodland, which has been to the regional tournament 10 times since 1999, will have a chance to advance to Birmingham on Thursday. The Bobcats will play Lanett (18-10), which defeated No. 9 Sand Rock on Monday, 45-39.
“I got to watch Lanett play Horseshoe Bend in the area finals,” Larry Strain said. “We played Lanett twice last year during the regular season. We didn’t play them this time, but I know a good bit about them.
“In fact, their best player, Miracle Mayo, spent about the whole summer with Leah and me in the truck, traveling all over the Southeast because they played on the same travel team.”
The Class 2A girls’ regional final is scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m. at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.