BENTON — Despite his team’s record and Mount Vernon’s 20 losses, Benton coach Andy Sloan was deeply concerned about Tuesday night’s Class 3A regional opener in Rich Herrin Gym.
For three quarters, the Rams displayed why he was worried. But in the fourth quarter, the Rangerettes took care of business and advanced to Thursday evening’s championship game with a 51-37 decision.
Mady Wallace scored a game-high 19 points for Benton (23-8) and Ember Milby added 10, thanks mostly to an 8 for 8 performance at the foul line. The Rangerettes will meet Olney for the title after it disposed of Herrin, 48-37, in an all-Tigers matchup in the nightcap.
“The record doesn’t tell the story of how much better Mount Vernon got towards the end of the season,” Sloan said. “With their big kid (Nici Rudd) and four 3-point shooters or dribble-drivers around her, they can pose some problems.
“We had a couple of droughts, but I thought our experience and our trust helped. We got down five twice, I think, but we didn’t panic. They stayed with what we were trying to do, got it tied and didn’t fold the tent.”
After bursting out to a 10-3 first quarter lead when Milby converted two free throws at the 2:31 mark, Benton couldn’t crack the code over the next six minutes. The Rams (7-21) feature the 6-1 Rudd and enough athletes out front to make every pass and shot difficult.
An NBA-range 3-pointer by Annibelle Harrison gave Mount Vernon an 18-13 lead midway through the second quarter. But the Rangerettes responded by ripping off the last nine points of the half. Wallace capped the spurt with a 3-point play after a steal, making it 22-18 at intermission.
“By this time in the season, we just know each other,” Wallace said. “We know we’re going to go through droughts. We know that we have to trust each other, have that bond.”
The Rams tested that bond again to start the third quarter, grabbing a 27-26 lead as Harrison scored a couple of buckets and set up Brooklynn Kelley for a 3-ball. However, Benton regained control as senior forward Macie Cockrum came off the bench to provide a layup and an elbow jumper that helped it take a 32-27 lead to the fourth period.
Sloan paid tribute to Cockrum, who missed time around Christmas with an injury but has provided the Rangerettes with a spark in several games.
“She played her tail off,” Sloan said. “I think she wants to play a few more games. She can shoot a little bit, and I thought by putting her in they had to take away Ember in the post. So it left Macie alone and she hit a couple of nice jumpers.”
The lead grew to 11 with just over 4 ½ minutes left as Cockrum converted a driving lefty layup in traffic. The dagger came when freshman Jacey Eubanks hoisted a 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:59 left and Benton leading by 10. Sloan grabbed both sides of his head in disbelief, but relaxed when the shot swished through for a 48-35 margin.
Mount Vernon coach Jeff Lonnon said fatigue hurt his team down the stretch. The Rams played Monday night, eliminating Marion 44-27.
“We gave it a good run for about 2 ½ quarters, but I think we ran out of gas,” he said. “We played 32 hard minutes last night and we just didn’t have fresh legs at the end. If we had a day off, maybe it could have been a different game.”
Harrison and Kelley each scored 10 points for Mount Vernon, while Rudd grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. But the Rams made just 5 of 20 3-pointers, missing their last eight.
In the second game, Herrin trailed almost wire-to-wire, but made an early run to start the third quarter. A baseline jumper by Presli Karnes pulled it within 26-21 at the 5:50 mark. But Olney rattled off eight straight points and maintained its double-digit advantage to the end.
Anna Blank paced Olney (19-11) with 13 points, while Morgan McKinnies scored eight for Herrin (14- 17).