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By Isaac Trotter|For the Press
EL PASO - The Blue Ridge Lady Knights are moving on in the McLean County Tournament after a 38-32 upset victory over El Paso-Gridley Saturday afternoon, and they don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
Clutch play from senior Josie Grammer combined with a stifling defense led the 11th seeded Blue Lady Knights to the upset over 6th seeded EPG to open their 2017 county tournament.
"We just believed,” Head Coach Drew O’Connell said after the win. “(When) I came in (as coach) they were 2-24 the year before I got here, so obviously you have to sell hope. But at some point hope runs out and you have to see results. So I think this year we’re finally showing some results."
Blue Ridge improved to 11-9 on the season with the victory, which was only their third against a conference foe, and they earned a quarterfinal matchup with the No. 3 seed, Heyworth.
"Our record isn’t where it should be, but we’ve had a ton of things to overcome," O'Connell said, referring to a spate of injuries. "That adversity helped us come in here against a good No. 6 seed and beat them on their own floor.”
Injuries and several close losses have Blue Ridge hovering around the .500, mark, but the victory over the Titans shows the Knights have what it takes to go to battle with good teams.
It also showed once again why Grammer is the best player to ever don a Blue Ridge uniform as she tallied 19 points and fended off the feisty Titans in the final frame.
She scored eight of her team’s 12 points in the fourth quarter and 14 of the Knights’ 25 points in the second half, but she was aided by strong play from her teammates in the post along the way.
Senior center Alex Specht and junior guard Natalie Tharp were both able to return from tough injuries in recent weeks and both played huge roles Saturay as Blue Ridge advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in three years.
"I think tonight you just saw the growth of the whole team," O'Connell said. "And when it gets tight…fourth quarter, in their gym, we were still able to pull it out."
Blue Ridge led just 26-25 heading into the fourth quarter and they were reeling a little bit as EPG had gone on a 12-7 run to close the third.
It was Grammer that was able to stop the bleeding, getting a steal and a lay-up that extended the Knight lead to three before EPG countered once again with a Lauren Hoselton free throw and a lay-up by Ashlyn Stone to tie the game at 28 with just over four minutes to play.
The Knights once again regained the lead by a point and clung to that advantage before Grammer drew a key charge which negated what would’ve been a go-ahead Titan bucket.
After that, Specht found Liz Bowns in the lane for a lay-up which gave Blue Ridge a 32-29 lead.
The Blue Ridge defense was playing well all night, and they came up with another stop with 1:31 remaining to regain possession in an attempt to extend their lead.
“(In recent games), we had been fouling a lot, so we decided to go into a matchup zone called Bump,” O’Connell said. “We wanted to make sure that we communicated out of it. I think that we talked really well and we did well with our sliding and rotating….The last two games our opponents had shot over 50 free throws. So we kept them off the free throw line tonight.
"We want teams to try and make shots against us because we’re pretty tough when we don’t foul.”
Following the defensive stand, Grammer controlled the ball at the top of the key and used a quick crossover dribble to get past her defender. Off the dribble, she rose up from about eight feet and knocked down the jumper to extend the Knights' lead to two possessions at 34-29.
In the waning minutes, she would add four free throws to seal the win.
Behind Grammar, Specht scored eight points and Amanda Davis contributed five.
The Knights were able to hold EPG under 10 points in three of the four quarters, their best effort coming in the second when EPG scored just four.
Specht was once again a game-changer in the middle as she collected four blocks and disrupted all of the Titan passing lanes.
With the win, the Knights hope to continue making noise as the tournament gets down to the nitty gritty.
"We are so hungry. We want some respect," O'Connell said. "(Coming into the tournament), We felt like we got mis-seeded. We didn’t play very well last week and some people starting questioning that maybe the No. 11 seed was the correct seed. But we’ve always believed in our team and each other and I think you saw that tonight.”
EPG was led by Cheyenne Carr who scored nine points while Hoselton chipped in eight. They will head to the consolation bracket where they’ll take on Tri-Valley.
The Knights will travel to Eureka College to take on the Hornets beginning at 5:30 p.m. Monday evening (Jan. 16).
The Hornets currently sit at 19-1 and 9-1 in Heart of Illinois Conference play. They beat Tri-Valley 72-30 in the opening round of the tournament, and bested Blue Ridge 51-30 in early December when the two teams last met.
Despite that, O’Connell said his team is looking forward to the rematch.
“We like our matchup with Heyworth,” he said. “We were down four going into the fourth quarter (in December) and just lost it at the end."