GUNTER — When Pottsboro and Ponder shared the District 9-3A title last season, there was no one close to challenging the Lady Cardinals and Lady Lions for the top spot.

The Gunter Lady Tigers have changed all that.

A year after finishing a distant third, Gunter ended the first half of district play in no worse than a tie for first place by producing a stellar defensive effort and overcoming its offensive struggles with a 36-33 victory against Pottsboro in 9-3A action.

“I really felt confident coming into the game,” Gunter first-year head coach Katie Stinton said. “I knew we’d start playing our best basketball right about now. New coach, new system. They’re really starting to get it.”

Blakely Esnard and Taylor Boddie each scored 10 points, Bri Carr added eight points and Rhyan Pogue grabbed 11 rebounds for Gunter (17-10, 5-1), which has the bye on Friday to close out the first half of district and will host Leonard in a non-district contest. The Lady Tigers will start the second half at home against S&S on Tuesday.

Hadley Williams had 18 points, nine rebounds and three assists and Tatum Rekieta chipped in nine points for Pottsboro (20-5, 4-1), which hosts S&S on Friday to close out its first half of district action.

If Pottsboro and Ponder win on Friday, then they will join Gunter in a three-way tie for first heading into the final six games with Gunter’s loss coming against Ponder and Ponder’s loss coming against Pottsboro.

The Lady Tigers were four games behind the pair in the standings last season when Gunter lost both meetings and also dropped a game against S&S but are showing this is a different year.

“It’s going to make it fun down the stretch,” Stinton said. “I’m looking forward to the second half.”

An 8-0 run to open the fourth quarter gave Gunter the lead for good. Esnard and Boddie started it and Sarah Putnicki, who finished with six rebounds, closed it with half of the points as the Lady Tigers took a 32-25 advantage with 3:30 remaining.

Williams tried to bring the Lady Cardinals all the way back. She swapped layups with Boddie and then converted a three-point play that trimmed the deficit to four with 2:41 left.

Emma Powlinson scored after a steal in the backcourt with a minute and a half left and the Lady Cardinals were down by two. Another Gunter turnover allowed Pottsboro a chance to tie but Williams connected on just one free-throw attempt so the Lady Tigers still held the lead.

“We started turning the ball over. They got to the point where they had to start trapping,” Stinton said. “We didn’t adjust to that very well.”

Esnard went to the line for a one-and-one situation with 30 seconds to go and hit both shots. Williams’ attempt to force overtime with a three from the left corner after a scramble came up short and Gunter gained possession with 1.2 seconds remaining and was able to hang on for the win.

Gunter erased its slim deficit at half-time when Esnard converted a three-point play to tie the game at 16 and start an 11-2 run over the next four minutes. But the six-point lead, which would seem insurmountable in this defensive battle, quickly disappeared.

The Lady Cardinals used a 7-0 burst at the end of the third quarter for a 25-24 lead as Rekieta made a three around buckets by Williams and Ali Malone.

Rekieta had given Pottsboro a 14-13 half-time advantage on a three-pointer with nine seconds remaining in the half. After the frame had seen just six points scored through the first four minutes, each team made a pair of three-pointers the rest of the quarter to provide four lead changes.

Carr put Gunter ahead only for Rekieta to answer. When Boddie gave the Lady Tigers a 13-11 advantage with less than a minute to go, Rekieta got the final word in the low-scoring half. Pottsboro made six shots in the first two quarters while Gunter made only four but three of them were three-pointers.

There was no scoring for almost the first four minutes of the game before Boddie hit a three-pointer with 4:18 showing. There wasn’t much offense after that basket either — Williams and Malone hit shots before Carr’s drive to the hoop with 1:38 left gave Gunter a 5-4 lead after an opening eight minutes where there were no fouls called on either team.

“We really made them work for everything and they did the same to us,” Stinton said.