GAINESVILLE —In the final minutes the Lady Yellow Jackets were being pushed like they had rarely been pushed during what has been a dominant season so far.
The Saginaw Lady Rough Riders were smelling an upset bid. They had closed the gap to single digits for just the second time in the second half and had done it with their leading scorer having already fouled out.
With a minute left the Lady Jackets had a six-point lead but withstood the final charge and came away with a 51-41 victory over Saginaw in a Class 5A Region I bi-district game on Monday night.
“We took a deep breath and collected ourselves,” Denison head coach Rod Been said. “I'm not going to overanalyze it. Win and advance at this time of year.”
Denison (30-4) will face Grapevine in the area round at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Lovejoy.
Zya Nugent scored 19 points to lead the Lady Yellow Jackets, who have won 12 straight and 21 of their last 22 games and are in the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season and the fourth time in program history. They also reached the 30-win plateau for the first time, continuing to distance themselves from the old school record for victories (26) set in 2005-06.
Zachareia Sommers added 14 points and Olivia Marr finished with 10 points. It has been a week of milestone victories for Been. By beating rival Sherman to close out the regular season, it gave him the 200th of his career. Number 201 against Saginaw came on his birthday.
“It was a great environment,” Been said. “Overwhelmed at how the Denison community continues to support these girls.”
Molly Kaiser scored 15 points to lead Saginaw (12-21) before she fouled out while M'kayla Malone added 10 points. The Lady Rough Riders got scoring from just two other players as Bless Nkashama and Brooke Harrell finished with eight points apiece.
Denison opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 spurt for a 42-25 lead that was its biggest margin. But Saginaw scored the next six points and by the middle of the frame it looked like it might go down the wire.
The Lady Rough Riders gave it their best shot and when Harrell hit a three-pointer with 59 seconds remaining, Denison needed to show some resolve. Marr found Taryn Gaines underneath for an answer and then Saginaw threw the ball away. Sommers connected on both attempts at the free-throw line with 36 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
“At times we played really well and at times we made poor decisions,” Been said. “When we made bad decisions they capitalized.”
Denison spent much of the third quarter holding a double-digit lead. But the eight-minute stretch was much of a slog — a beneficial pace for Saginaw. It didn't help the Lady Jackets that Nugent and fellow starters Ikia Lacy and Gaines spent much of the time in foul trouble.
For three minutes neither team scored until Nugent got hot near the end of the quarter and beat the buzzer with a step-back jumper from the left side of the floor.
The second quarter played out much like the first for Saginaw. The Lady Rough Riders had trouble scoring, going the first four minutes without a point as Denison held a 20-11 lead.
Marr made a long two and then a three-pointer on consecutive possessions to widen the gap to double digits. Nugent then banked in a jumper from the left elbow, forcing a Saginaw timeout.
Malone scored twice in the final minute for Saginaw but Denison still took a 29-17 lead into the locker room. Nugent had 10 points at the break with Marr at nine points and Sommers close behind with eight points.
Malone and Kaiser combined for all but five points of Saginaw's first-half production.
Denison opened the game with a three-pointer by Sommers and the Lady Jackets were looking to push the pace.
“I thought she was huge for us,” Been said. “Finished some baskets in transition and gave us a great defensive effort.”
They got several buckets in that fashion, whether off Saginaw makes or quick outlets — mostly via Nugent passes — to either Marr or Sommers streaking down the court.
The Lady Rough Riders made just one basket in the first half of the first quarter and after a Nugent steal and layin Denison was up 9-2.
Marr scored on a drive to give the Lady Jackets a 14-6 advantage but then the foul trouble hit for Nugent, as she picked up her second and third fouls in the span of six seconds late in the quarter.
Saginaw got a three-pointer from Harrell and another basket in the closing seconds to pull the Lady Rough Riders within 16-11.