AUBREY — When head coach Rodney Ross arrived at S&S this past spring, his first trip wasn’t to the gym. It was to the library.
“Spent three hours pouring over yearbooks. I kept going so far back and back in them, I had to bug grandmas and people around town,” Ross said. “I think you have to have a vision. Creating that vision gives them something to work toward. You get the buyin from the coaches and the kids and then things can happen.”
Four months ago the Lady Rams had their vision: make the playoffs for the first time since 1981.
“The very first day of practice he was like ‘it’s been 38 years since we made the playoffs and we’re going break that streak,’” senior center Payton White said. “It’s been like that ever since.”
The vision quest was coming from a bad starting point and it seem like the finish line was so far away.
“They were 3-28 last year,” Ross said. “Teams see S&S and they think automatic win.”
As if completing the task wasn’t tough enough, the Lady Rams had to survive a last-second shot attempt but S&S held on for a 41-40 victory against Gunter in the District 9-3A tie-breaker on Friday night.
S&S (13-19, 5-8) earned the fourth seed and will face District 10-3A champion Leonard (27-3) in a Class 3A Region II bi-district contest at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Anna.
“Nothing can describe the joy of our team right now,” said White, who had a team-high 12 points. “We worked so hard for this for four months.”
Gunter (8-22, 4-9) was trying to reach the playoffs for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons and had one final chance in the closing moments.
“We knew on paper it was a pretty close match-up,” Ross said. “We had to be tough. They have responded very well in games where we had to get the victory.”
Sarah Putnicki, who scored a game-high 21 points, drove to the basket and got around two defenders but her shot was too strong and White chased the rebound to the left sideline and S&S was able to run out the clock.
“As soon as I saw that ball go up I had to get that rebound,” White said.
Putnicki has served as Gunter’s go-to option since junior Tori Gittens, the team’s leading scorer, injured her right knee before the start of district and has been sidelined since. Against S&S, she made seven shots while the rest of the team combined to hit five.
“I wanted her to work,” Ross said. “If she was going to score, she was going to have to work for her buckets.”
Suzanna Griffin had given the Lady Rams the lead on a pair of free throws with 58 seconds left. Putnicki then missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with 32 seconds remaining. Taylor Jackson, who scored nine points, had a chance to extend S&S’ lead but missed on a one-and-one chance with 14 seconds remaining, giving Gunter a final opportunity at the win.
“We haven’t shot free throws well all year so I knew we’d be in trouble,” Ross said. “We tried to play keepaway.”
The only other time S&S had the lead in the fourth quarter was on White’s layin with 3:37 left. That followed a three-pointer by Halie Hicks which tied the game at 37.
Bri Carr then came up with a steal and found Putnicki cutting to the basket to tie the game and Putnicki made a free throw with 1:01 on the clock for Gunter’s final lead — 40-39 — of the night.
Jackson’s three-pointer in the middle of the third quarter was immediately answered by one from Connor Clement to tie the game at 28 and it started a 9-0 run that saw Gunter holding a 34-28 lead. Putnicki scored the other eight points by the Lady Tigers in the stanza.
Colleen Billmeier rattled home a three-pointer from the top of the key and S&S was down four going to the fourth.
“We were down six and we had to have a bucket there,” Ross said.
S&S took a one-point half-time advantage after the Lady Tigers led almost the entire eight minutes. Addison Mercer had a lay-up that made it 20-14 before White scored a pair of baskets around a Clement free throw. White then hit two free throws to tie the game at 21 only for Clement to hit one attempt from the line and Putnicki followed with a jumper.
But Griffin connected on a pair of free throws and White’s putback with 19 seconds left provided the slim margin.
The first quarter started with S&S getting three-pointers from Jackson and Billmeier on back-to-back possessions and the Lady Rams held the lead before Putnicki made a jumper to put Gunter in front at 10-9. The teams traded points until Kaylee Baker tied the game at 12 with 16 seconds remaining in the frame.