POCA, W.Va. - Clay County's players have leaned on one another all year long and that togetherness carried the Panthers a long way in their postseason opener Wednesday evening.
The Panthers nearly let their season unravel after squandering a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter before hanging on for a 53-44 victory over Sissonville in the semifinals of the Class AA Region 4 Section 1 tournament. A crowd of about 400 attended at Poca High School.
The Panthers (17-5), No. 5 in this week's final Associated Press poll, will play in the section championship game at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 3 Nicholas County, which defeated Poca 60-33 later Wednesday. Friday's winner will host next week's regional game while the loser will play on the road with a state tournament berth on the line in both games.
Not a whole bunch went right for Clay in the fourth quarter Wednesday. The Panthers saw their 15-point cushion dwindle to five, junior leading scorer Brittany Gould scored a basket for Sissonville, Clay committed eight of its 13 turnovers and missed nine free throws.
"There was a lot of team effort,'' said Clay coach Mary Ramsey, who guided the Panthers to a semifinals appearance at last year's state tournament. "All 12 of them have practiced hard every day for this. They've stayed together as a team. Even if they weren't in the game everybody was up cheering for everybody.''
"That's what we do,'' added Panthers sophomore point guard McKinzee Barker, who picked up her effort with 15 points, 15 rebounds, four steals and three blocks. "When one of us is down we pat them on the back and tell them to put it behind them and that they have to worry about the rest of the game.''
Barker's driving layup five seconds into the final period put Clay up 43-28 and on cruise control. The Indians (16-7) answered with an 8-0 run, which included Gould's layup for Sissonville, to close with seven points (43-36) with 4:52 left in the game.
Sissonville came within 46-41 on freshman guard Karli Pinkerton's pair of foul shots with 1:44 left. The Indians, though, couldn't take advantage of the opening the Panthers provided as poor shooting plagued them all evening. Clay sank just enough free throws (4 of 10) to build its edge back to nine points (50-41) with 51.9 seconds to go. And Gould redeemed herself with a layup with 31.4 seconds left to keep Clay's lead at nine.
Pinkerton and the Indians' other freshman guard, Madison Jones, the team's top two scorers, combined to shoot 7 of 34 from the floor and 1 of 14 on 3s. Clay and Sissonville split during the regular season, with each winning on their home court.