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PREP BASKETBALL: Laney’s second-half swing catches Model as the Lady Blue Devils fall in Final Four

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MILLEDGEVILLE — For 16 minutes Saturday afternoon, the Model girls’ basketball team made progress in defeating the stigma surrounding the court that had been the final stop in their season each of the last two years.

It was two quarters of the Lady Blue Devils effectively bringing their gritty style of defense to No. 1-ranked Laney and standing with them toe-to-toe in the Class AA Final Four contest.

But it wasn’t to last.

The Lady Wildcats, the defending Class AA state champions, adjusted their pressure after halftime and Model was plagued with a barrage of foul calls as Laney stormed ahead and won 68-51 at Georgia College’s Centennial Center Arena.

An Elite Eight game and back-to-back state semifinal battles with Laney have all ended with a loss for the Lady Devils at the neutral site in Milledgeville, but Model head coach Sally Echols commended her team for staying strong in Saturday’s matchup.

“They came out fearless … from the get-go. They never backed down. They never slowed down. They never stopped fighting. They continued to respond with the right attitude and pulled together, and that’s what teams are supposed to do,” Echols said.

“This team, you know. … It’s too soon. It’s just one game too soon. But when the season ends, unless it’s the last win of the season, it’s always too soon.”

The difference came at the free throw line as Model went 8-of-21 while Laney finished 26-of-35, the largest part of which was scored in the second half when Model was called for 18 fouls.

“When that happens, you have to adjust with the pace of the game,” Echols said.

“The fact of the matter is they had a momentum swing in their favor. And I felt like in the second half we never got that momentum swing. We never stopped playing, but we just never got that momentum swing that swung their way.”

Victaria Saxton, Model’s four-year starting center and all-time leading scorer, paced the Lady Devils with 14 points and 11 rebounds to add one last double-double to her tally in her final high school game.

“It hurts, but I know my team gave everything that we had,” Saxton said. “We never put our heads down, we always kept pushing and it was always heart, heart, heart.”

Junior guard Libby Upton finished with 12 points, including three 3-pointers, and was a spark for Model’s effort in the first quarter with eight points to help lift her team to a 16-13 lead after eight minutes of play.

The opening quarter included a 10-0 run for the Lady Devils after Laney broke open the scoring with a quick layup for De’Sha Benjamin, who didn’t score again until early in the second half as Model’s Elizabeth Duke and Moe Welch keyed in on her.

The No. 6-ranked Lady Devils (23-4) fell behind with a 9-2 Laney run to start the second period, but managed to recover to take a 24-22 lead with 2:22 to go.

Laney (31-0) got back on top with a trey from Jhessyka Williams 11 seconds later, and the two teams battled back and forth the remainder of the half with neither team getting a basket and Model holding close at halftime, down by one.

“I think it was really just our mindset,” Echols said of her team’s first-half performance. “We had a response in the first half for everything. We had a counter. So that mentality I think caught them off guard.”

A game-changing 15-2 run for Laney drew a dagger right through Model’s rhythm in the third quarter. Saxton drew three fouls in the period, giving her four total, and she was subbed out with 2:27 to go in the quarter.

Lady Devil Megan Kent scored seven of her 11 points in the third, but the Lady Wildcats outscored Model 25-14 in the quarter.

Saxton returned to start the fourth and played out the game, but Welch soon picked up her fifth and final foul.

Benjamin became the main pivot point of that swing for Laney, scoring 20 points in the half, most of which came from going 14-of-16 at the line. Williams scored 11 of her 16 in the second half as well.

After the final buzzer, there were no visible signs of grief on many of the Lady Devils’ faces. No tears. No sour looks. Saxton held her head up and congratulated Laney players as she headed for the locker room.

“When I walked off the court, I kept a smile on my face because I know that we did all that we could do,” Saxton said. “Everybody’s heart was there, and I was just really proud of my team because nobody expected us to stick with them at all.”

“I love our fans. I love our community. I love this team,” Echols said. “It’s not the end that we wanted, but I wouldn’t trade any person on this team for a win. It was a special season. It was really magical in so many ways. Again, we’re thankful and blessed, and happy to be a part of it.”