Playing as if their basketball season was on the line — because it was — the GPS Bruisers took rival Baylor to the wire before falling short Friday.
After a disappointing start to the schedule, the Bruisers had won three straight games and came into their regular-season finale against the state's third-ranked Division II-AA team knowing they needed a win to extend their season.
Despite trailing the Lady Red Raiders by double digits midway through the fourth quarter, GPS closed within two twice in the final 40 seconds before losing 41-39.
Earlier this week, GPS lost a coin toss with Knoxville Catholic for the four-team DII-AA East Region's third and final postseason spot. The only way the Bruisers could qualify was to upset Baylor.
"We have preached all season about improving game by game," GPS coach Janna Eichelberger said. "We have one junior and the rest of our team is sophomores and freshmen, so it's been a learning process, but we've played our best basketball lately and that carried over into tonight."
Raegyn Conley, who was named a TSSAA Miss Basketball finalist last week, opened the game with back-to-back 3-pointers to help stake Baylor to a lead it held until late in the second quarter. After GPS (7-13) took a short-lived lead on C.J. Polk's 3-pointer, Baylor (23-5) countered with a 6-0 run, sparked by two baskets by Conley, to close the half.
The Lady Red Raiders continued to carry momentum through the third quarter, pushing their lead to 12 points on consecutive layups by Conley and a putback basket by Erin Hughes.
"We did a nice job pounding the ball inside and getting good looks early in the second half, and then for some reason we just went away from that and started taking jumpers," Baylor coach John Gibson said. "That's fine if you're making those shots, but when you don't, things can swing the other way pretty quick."
Baylor, which beat GPS 61-36 earlier this season, maintained a comfortable advantage until the Bruisers closed the gap with a 9-0 run during a two-minute stretch late in the game. After the Bruisers got within two with 39 seconds remaining, Britt Barton connected on a pair of free throws to extend Baylor's lead. GPS then missed three 3-point attempts during a 12-second span before Kennedy Ball stole a pass and hit a layup with three seconds left, once again cutting Baylor's lead to two.
The Lady Red Raiders were able to run out the final seconds, though, and hold on to earn the top seed in next week's region tournament. Baylor will learn who it hosts early next week.
Conley finished with a game-high 22 points, going 5-of-5 from the free throw line and making three 3-pointers.
"The fourth quarter was a little frustrating, but they were playing for their season and we didn't really match that," Conley said. "I think what we can learn from this game is that we have to play hard the whole game, because anybody can beat anybody this time of year."