For Marion County's girls basketball team to claim its first region championship would mean beating county rival Whitwell for a fourth straight time this season. And for either of those things to happen, the Lady Warriors would first have to shrug off the momentum shift Whitwell had used to close out the first half and take a four-point lead.
Marion wasted little time in overcoming the deficit, then pulling away for a 46-39 victory and the Region 3-A title that came with it at Signal Mountain High School on Wednesday.
The Lady Warriors (22-9) will host 10th-ranked Red Boiling Springs in a Class A sectional Saturday, while Whitwell (23-10) must travel to fifth-ranked Jackson County.
MARION COUNTY 46, WHITWELL 39
Whitwell 5 17 5 12 - 39
Marion County 6 12 15 13 - 46
Whitwell (39) - Greene 5, Condra 7, Caldwell, Bennington, Atterton, Halle Ware 17, Carter 8, Kilgore 2, Gholston.
Marion County (46) - Keta Robinette 12, Towery 1, Kayla Brown 10, Lauren Brown 10, Johnson 2, Nunley 9, Oliver 2.
3-point goals: Whitwell 5 (Carter 2, Ware, Condra, Greene); Marion County 3 (Nunley 3). Other highlights: Lauren Brown 13 r; Kayla Brown 8 r; Keta Robinette 6 r, 3 a, 3 s (MC). Records: Marion County 22-9; Whitwell 23-10.
All tournament: Keta Robinette (MVP), Lauren Brown, Kayla Brown, Autumn Towery (Marion County); Halle Ware, Paige Carter, Brailey Condra (Whitwell); Haley Buchanan (Copper Basin); Robyn Anthony (Arts & Sciences).
"Every coach preaches the importance of the first few minutes of the second half," said Marion coach Randy Ellis, who earned the 100th win of his career. "But this time for us, those first few minutes were extremely important. They had taken it to us and had us a little bit on our heels to end the first half. We had to come out and take charge early on."
Using a bigger lineup to begin the second half, the Lady Warriors scored five times on offensive rebounds and putbacks and outscored Whitwell 15-5 in the third quarter.
Junior post Kayla Brown scored eight of her 10 points in the third quarter and seven of her eight rebounds came on the offensive end. Her sister Lauren also had 10 points and eight of her 13 rebounds were on the defensive end, limiting Whitwell's second-chance points.
"That's my job, no matter what else is happening, I'm supposed to rebound and score or kick it back out to one of our open shooters," Kayla Brown said. "It's pretty tough to beat one of your rivals four times, but this was the most important one because now we get to play at home Saturday, and if we had lost they would've been talking a lot of trash."
After trailing by as much as nine with just over three minutes to go, Whitwell closed within four with 1:36 remaining. The Lady Tigers had a chance to get even closer, but Halle Ware's 3-pointer with 1:25 left rimmed out and Marion was able to hold on, despite making just 3 of 8 free throws in the final minute.
Ware led all scorers with 17 points and Keta Robinette led a balanced Marion scoring line with 12 points to go with three assists and three steals.