CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Princeton's McKenzie Akers knew something had to change after halftime Tuesday night or she and the seven other seniors would never realize their dream.
The Tigers shifted gears into overdrive in the second half en route to a 71-66 victory over host George Washington in the Class AAA Region 3 girls basketball co-final. A crowd of about 400 attended the showdown of state-ranked teams.
Princeton (19-5), No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll, will advance to the state tournament for the first time in four years March 6-9 at the Charleston Civic Center. The Tigers' opponent won't be determined until Friday when the seeds will be unveiled.
The other Region 3 co-final - Capital at Greenbrier East - was postponed until Thursday, which will hold up the seeding process.
No. 9 GW (16-9) defeated Princeton a couple of weeks ago to secure the East Division title in the Mountain State Athletic Conference and a spot in the Night of Champions. The Patriots had won their regional co-final on their home court the past two seasons, advancing to the state semifinals both times.
Princeton trailed 40-33 at the break then outscored GW 38-26 in the second half, holding the Patriots to eight points in the third quarter.
Akers poured in a game-high 33 points on 11-of-22 shooting and converted 9 of 11 free-throw attempts. The MSAC's leading scorer scored 13 points in the first half and pumped in 20 after the break.
"We went in at halftime and knew [GW] had beat us the first two quarters,'' said Akers. "We knew the post was killing us and we needed to box out since we're so small. We knew we could run on them so we needed to push up the tempo a little bit.''
The focus on rebounding was huge in the final 44.1 seconds as Princeton missed two foul shots but senior guard Marissa Mullins and senior post Khadijah Payne secured the rebounds as the Tigers were clinging to two- and three-point leads, respectively. After Payne's carom, Tigers senior guard Jessica Inman was fouled and made 1 of 2 to push the margin to 68-64 with 37.7 seconds left.
"That's where you've got to want it more than the other person,'' said GW coach Jamie LaMaster. "[Princeton's] seniors just weren't going to be denied. They showed what a regional championship team looks like.''
GW sophomore guard Hailey Stewart hit two free throws with 26.5 seconds to close to 68-66. The Patriots were forced to foul and Akers made a pair from the charity stripe for a four-point advantage (70-66) with 19.5 seconds to go.