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BASKETBALL: Model’s girls outlast Putnam County in wild game to open playoffs

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Through all of the build up to it and the emotional swings that were a part of it, the Model Lady Blue Devils pushed through their first-round state playoff game and avenged a loss that threatened to haunt them two years later.

No. 6 Model opened Friday’s game with a strong statement and overcame adversity in the second half to defeat No. 7 Putnam County 70-64 to open the Class AA state playoffs.

“I felt like we just came out harder as a team than we have in any other game, and we had the right mindset,” senior forward Victaria Saxton said. “We were intense. We were just ready. We were all excited. It was just … we were having fun.”

Saxton recovered from a severe cramp midway through the second half and finished with 38 points and 17 rebounds for Model, which led nearly the entire game and fought off a rising Lady Eagles team in the final period to secure the win.

Putnam County had been ranked in the top five in the state most of the season until back-to-back losses in its region tournament last week seeded the Lady Eagles fourth, setting up a rematch with Region 7-AA champion Model.

The Lady Devils were defeated by Putnam County two years ago in the Elite Eight.

“We felt like we needed to prove something and show what we’ve really got,” Saxton said.

Model (23-3) went on a 12-3 run in the first period and was ahead 16-7 heading into the second. Then the Lady Devils produced a 15-2 run that led to a 35-17 lead at halftime.

“We knew it was going to be a tough contest, and I think knowing that, the girls were better prepared than they would have been had it not been Putnam County,” Model coach Sally Echols said. “We say it all the time, but it falls back on our defense. And I feel like our defense in the first half really set the tone for us.”

The Lady Devils recovered from a small Putnam run at the start of the second half and took their biggest lead of the game after a 3-pointer from Libby Upton — who finished with 13 points — put them up 44-23 with 3:43 to go in the third.

Saxton was challenged by a Putnam County player a short time later and stumbled out of bounds. She came up limping, which turned into a pained expression and a trot straight to the Model locker room area.

“It was in both legs, and it was probably the worst cramp I’ve ever had. It was unbearable,” Saxton said. “I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to get back and be strong for my team.’”

After Model’s medical training staff worked on her leg for the remainder of the third period, Saxton re-entered the game with 6:27 left to rousing applause from the home crowd.

“It just made me feel loved,” Saxton said of the reaction. “I just love our fans. They’re just so supportive and happy for everybody. We have a great support system.”

The South Carolina signee went on to score 10 more points and pull down three rebounds before the final buzzer sounded.

While she was out, Upton, Moe Welch and Elizabeth Duke did their best to take up the slack. Putnam County (20-5) found a renewed energy with sophomore Jashanti Simmons led the charge, scoring 10 in the third and seven in the fourth before fouling out with 1:55 left.

Senior forward Rykia Pennamon scored 17 of the Lady Eagles’ 31 fourth-period points, including going 7-of-8 at the line.

For Echols, it was shades of two years ago when Model led by 12 at halftime before Putnam County mounted a comeback and won.

“We said we don’t want the same ending to that story as we had the first time around. That’s been two years ago, but this senior group remembers that well,” she said. “Basketball is a game of runs, so you have to hold steady. You’ve got to get your mindset right and just keep playing through it, and I felt like we were able to do that.”

Model will host Callaway in the Sweet 16 on either Wednesday or Thursday.