The road this year was never meant to be easy for the Lady Yellow Jackets and realignment took care of that in a couple of ways.
Denison was coming off its best season in school history — 31 victories and a region quarterfinal appearance — and had four starters returning. So the schedule saw a major upgrade in opponents, by choice or necessity, with an eye on the long term.
There are very few opportunitites for the Lady Jackets to catch their breath. After going on the road to Class 6A No. 17 Prosper and losing by five, the final game before Christmas wasn’t much of a present in Class 4A No. 25 Bridgeport.
“This schedule was built to battle complacency. We haven’t lost to a bad team,” Denison head coach Rod Been said. “You’ve got to be careful what you ask for; you just might get it. I’ve got to trust it’s going to pay dividends in district and the playoffs.”
A defensive struggle stayed the Lady Jackets’ way and Denison was able to hang on for a 42-38 victory over the Sissies in non-district action on Friday afternoon.
Zya Nugent had 21 points, making 15-of-18 free throws, and 10 rebounds, Taryn Gaines added eight points and seven steals, Ikia Lacy chipped in four points, five rebounds and three steals and Jade Fry finished with six points, four steals and three rebounds for Denison (11-7), which closes out non-district play at the Amarillo Caprock Tournament starting on Thursday. Nugent will likely cross the 2,500-point plateau for her career out west — she needs 73 points to get there.
“That’s a better balance, especially in a 42-point game behind Zya,” Been said. “She really had to work hard for that.”
Denison has been working hard with a schedule that won’t let up as well as some injuries. Lacy is back from an ankle issue and senior guard Zachareia Sommers is still three weeks away after fracturing her left kneecap.
“There’s going to be some good things to come out of it. At times it’s been painful. I’ll put some of the losses due to injury,” Been said. “That’s forced Jade Fry to become better and forced Maliyah Butler to be better.”
Morgan Davidson scored 14 points and Emily Vidal finished with 10 points for Bridgeport (14-5), which had 24 turnovers and couldn’t come out ahead on its height advantage with Jade Hall and Delaney Ingram combining for just seven points.
“I thought Ikia and Taryn did a great job against their size,” Been said.
The fourth quarter saw the most production from both teams but it ended in a stalemate for the eight-minute period as Bridgeport could only match Denison’s 13 points. Since the Lady Jackets held a four-point margin at the end of the third, the Sissies never fully closed the gap — let alone get within a single possession.
Every time that Bridgeport scored and was down four points, Denison had an answer.
“To go into the holidays having to play hard, that’s what these girls need,” Been said. “A schedule like this really squeezes them. Sometimes we get squeezed and good things come out and sometimes we get squeezed and it’s not so good.”
The first was a pull-up jumper in the lane with 3:39 left in the contest and Bridgeport’s chances really took a hit when Vidal fouled out with 2:55 remaining. Hall also fouled up with just under a minute left as the Sissies tried to rally.
On Denison’s side, Nugent avoided her final foul after being saddled with four for the final 6:06.
Ashley Ingram made a pair of free throws to get Bridgeport’s deficit back to four with 1:49 left and had the ball back after the Lady Jackets missed the front end of a one-and-one. But Denison’s defense rose to the occasion one final time, Nugent sank two free throws and the victory was secured.
Vidal carried Bridgeport in the third quarter to keep the game close.She scored the final seven of the Sissies’ eight points in the stanza, including a pair of free throws with 40 seconds left in the quarter.
Gaines scored underneath for a 29-25 advantage going to the fourth — up to that point it had been a slog offensively for both sides.
Denison also only scored eight points in the third with the big shot being Butler’s three-pointer from the top of the key that pushed the margin to 27-21 with 1:28 remaining.
Nugent scored the Lady Jackets’ first seven points of the second quarter and had all but two of Denison’s 11 points in the frame, outside of a Lacy putback in the final minute, as the home team took the lead for good at that point.
Bridgeport went up 12-10 in the first minute of the frame on Logan Walsh’s jumper and then went scoreless for the next three minutes.
The Lady Jackets couldn’t take advantage, however, and led by one when Davidson banked home a jumper to give the Sissies a 15-14 lead.
Brilee Payne came up with a steal on Denison’s full-court press that led to a Nugent lay-up but Hall responded with a right-corner three-pointer to tie the game at 17.
Lacy’s putback and then two free throws from Nugent with 10 seconds left in the half gave the Lady Jackets a four-point margin at the break.
The score was tied at 10 at the end of the first quarter when Fry scored on a layin to end a sequence in which Lacy blocked a three-pointer and Nugent had a three-quarters court pass that led to the bucket with 14 seconds on the clock.
Neither team got off to a fast start but Bridgeport took an 8-6 advantage on back-to-back jumpers from Davidson. Gray responded with a jumper of her own and Hall scored on the ensuing trip to but the Sissies back in front until Denison pulled even going into the second quarter.