HAMLIN — Throughout the third quarter, Nitro hadn’t shown much against Lincoln County’s defensive adjustment of picking up Wildcats’ guard Baylee Goins with a double-team at half court.
The Panthers used that strategy to stymie the Wildcat offense and build a 15-point lead in the initial stages of the fourth quarter.
But according to Wildcats coach Pat Jones, all his team needed to show was a little heart.
And so Goins, who has carried her team through a postseason run that would test the nerves — and cardiovascular health — of any coach, put her team on her back one more time and came up with a season-high 45 points as the Wildcats gutted out a 78-69 comeback win in overtime in a Class AAA Region 4 girls basketball co-final on Thursday.
The win sends Nitro (19-7) to the state tournament for the first time since 2007.
The Wildcats earned the No. 5 seed and will match up with No. 4 Lincoln at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Charleston Coliseum.
Goins, a two-time first-team All-State guard, scored 11 points during a hectic fourth quarter that saw the Wildcats outscore Lincoln County 24-11 after appearing all but dead in the second half.
“I just told them to stay composed and relax,” Jones said. “I told them it’s all about heart now. If you want to go to the state tournament, you’ve just got to show me heart.”
Carrying the load is nothing new for Goins, who poured in 44 points at Wayne in a two-point sectional semifinal win a week ago. She also scored 39 in a loss to No. 2 Winfield in a sectional final last Friday.
But even for Goins, the entirety of the offense and two Lincoln County defenders was a bit too much to shoulder for much of the second half on Thursday.
Over a span stretching from early in the second quarter until early in the fourth, Goins scored 29 straight points for the Wildcats, including all eight in the third quarter as the Panthers (17-9) used a 20-8 period to seemingly seize control.
The Wildcats attempted 31 more shots than Lincoln County thanks to some nice work on the offensive glass, but shots from anyone other than Goins simply wouldn’t go down.
Lincoln County, meanwhile, had four players in double figures and the Panthers’ balance helped build that second-half cushion. Reserve Kiki Henderson led her team with 18 points with Carly McComas adding 16.
When those two weren’t doing damage on the inside, McComas, Allee Albright (11 points) and Avery Lucas (10) were hitting shots from outside and in transition.
“We just had a get a stop on defense and get a bucket,” Goins said. “That got us going and we had to keep on doing it.”
The shot that ended Goins’ personal 29-point streak seemed innocent enough, a 3-pointer from Patricia Ward with six minutes to go that cut the Lincoln County lead to single digits at 59-50.
However, five of the next seven points went to Lincoln County as the Panthers’ lead was pushed back to 12 at 64-52. But from there, Nitro went on a 9-0 run, capped back a bucket from Emily Lancaster with 2:05 remaining to make the score 64-61. From there, an all-out free-for-all ensued.
After Albright and Nitro’s Haley Carroll traded free throws, Goins buried one of her six 3-pointers with 1:13 remaining to finally draw Nitro even at 65. McComas answered with a drive to the rim followed by another long triple from Goins to put Nitro on top with 49 seconds to go at 68-67.
Albright was fouled on the other end and hit 1 of 2 free throws with 41.3 seconds left to tie it, and despite multiple chances for both teams, neither could get a clean look from there on out. The Panthers had the last chance, but couldn’t get a shot off after inbounding with 3.8 seconds remaining.
Once in overtime, riding the momentum and adrenaline, Nitro grabbed the lead on the first possession and pulled away.
Lancaster and Ward each had baskets to start what would become a 10-1 extra period that would put an exclamation point on the Wildcats’ postseason run to the state tournament.
“Baylee Goins is unbelievable,” Jones said. “She handled double-teams, triple-teams. I told her at the three-minute mark, ‘I believe in you. If we’re going to win this, it’s going to go through you.’ And she said, ‘We’re going to win it.’”
“She’s phenomenal,” Lincoln County coach Randy Adkins said. “Panic kind of sets in and we got away offensively from what we were having success with. But I’m proud of my girls. We’ve done a lot of things this season for our school. They played hard.”
Collier pulled down 15 rebounds to lead the charge on the glass for the Wildcats with Danielle Ward adding eight and Goins seven. Patricia Ward scored 12 points for the Wildcats.
McComas added 10 rebounds for Lincoln County.