Members of the Cannon County cheering section, which represented more than two-thirds of the crowd in attendance, cheer the Lionettes to victory in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class AA State Championship. (TONY STINNETT photo).
MURFREESBORO - Cannon County made the most of every second in its first trip to the TSSAA Class AA Girls State Tournament in 19 years.
No. 8 Cannon County (30-7) broke a 51-51 tie on Chelsey Payne's driving layup and subsequent free throw with 41 seconds remaining, and Emily Sissom sank three free throws and collected a steal in the final 15 seconds to lead the Lionettes to a 57-51 win against No. 2 Elizabethton (34-2) in the Class AA quarterfinals at MTSU's Murphy Center Thursday afternoon.
The win was the 200th of sixth-year Head Coach Michael Dodgen's career in his first state tournament appearance.
Cannon County will face No. 1 McMinn Central (33-1) in semifinal action Friday at 2:30 p.m. The Lionettes dealt the Chargerettes their only loss during a Thanksgiving Classic in Woodbury last November. The two teams also met in last year's Sub-state round when McMinn Central ended Cannon County's season one game shy of the state tournament.
"As the season goes teams do change, but I don't think much has really changed here," senior Taylor King said. "We still have that chip on our shoulder from last year when they ended our season. We remember how that felt. We just have to give it our all and in the end the better team will win."
Sisters Emily and Abby Sissom led the Lionettes with 17 and 13 points, respectively, and combined to connect on all six of the team's 3-pointers with Emily knocking down four. Payne finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, Lauren Ruehlen narrowly missed a double double with a dominant seven-point, 10-rebound performance, and King finished with six points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Lindsey Reed also made her presence felt on the boards with nine caroms and her always solid defense.
"Elizabethton is a really good basketball team. They reminded me a lot of Upperman," Emily Sissom said. "Every time we would make a run they just kept coming at us hard. We knew it would be a tough game and it was. There is a reason why that team won 34 games this year. It was a battle until the end."
Dodgen said his team's effort and tenacity were key on a day when they did not shoot up to par.
"I'm proud of the way our kids battled in this game," Dodgen said. "We turned it over and helped them get back in it a little, but we never let up and we kept battling and got the win. The effort was outstanding. We get one more and we will see what happens."
Cannon County led 50-43 following Payne's layup with 2:38 remaining and the highly-partisan Lionette crowd was in a frenzy ... until Elizabethon showed its moxie and responded with a 8-1 run to tie the game, 51-51 with 59 seconds remaining. The Lady Cyclones, trailing 51-48, got a break when Payne turned the ball over in the open court with time running down.
Cara Bowling, who scored a game-high 28 points, scored and drew the foul. Her free throw tied the game, 51-51, with 59 seconds remaining and marked the first time Elizabethton had been even or ahead of Cannon County since the 7:24 mark of the second quarter.
Payne made up for it on the next possession when, out of a timeout, she took her defender around the right wing, drove her toward the basket, muscled in a layup and drew the foul. She converted the free throw to give the Lionettes a 54-51 lead with 41 seconds remaining.
Bowling's 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining was off the mark and Emily Sissom knocked down key free throws and, leading 55-51, secured a huge steal to effectively end the game.
"In a close game one minute is a long time so when they tied the game I knew as long as we kept our head we could come together and do this," Emily Sissom said. "Coming out of the last timeout coach Dodgen told us not to shoot unless we had a layup because we had control there in a time game. Chelsey saw an opening and took her player in there. I think (Payne) kind of took that turnover and kept it on her shoulder. She wanted to make up for that and she did. She got it back for us."
The first half featured nine lead changes as the players battled early jitters and adjusting to the spacious Murphy Center. The game was tied 14-14 at the end of the first quarter, but Ruehlen's short jumper gave Cannon County a 18-17 lead with 5:10 remaining and Abbey Sissom's long 3-pointer provided the Lionettes with a 21-17 advantage with 4:46 to play in the half. It was the largest lead for either team to that point.
Abbey Sissom did not play like a freshman in her state tournament debut. The heralded rookie had 13 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and even blocked a shot. Most important was her tenacious defense on Elizabethton senior point guard Kristen Powell, who was limited to two points on 1-of-5 shooting and four turnovers.
"(Powell) was really quick and I just had to try and body her up and play tough defense," Abbey Sissom said. "Our team defense was really good and we limited their second shots."
Second-chance points were huge as Cannon County managed nine and held Elizabethton to two. The Lionettes won the battle of the boards 43-32 and had four players with seven or more rebounds, led by Ruehlen's 10.
"It was a very physical game. They are one of the most physical teams we have played all year," Ruehlen said. "Our rebounding was a key in this game. It made a big difference."
Ruehlen also made her presence felt offensively. Elizabethton had cut the lead to 37-35 with 7:28 remaining when Ruehlen put together back-to-back scores to push it back to six, 41-35, with 6:12 remaining.
Emily Sissom's long-range treys, particularly in the first half, helped establish the early lead. Cannon County scored almost one-third (20) of its points in the paint and scored 16 points off of 12 Lady Cyclone turnovers.