The season grows more special for the Jefferson girls’ basketball team with each passing victory.
First a region title, then a victory at state. Now this.
The Lady Dragons (21-9) are headed to the Elite 8 — the program’s deepest state tournament run since 2006 — after beating second-seeded Manchester 44-33 at home Monday night. Jefferson will face 25-3 Wesleyan today (Wednesday) in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m.
“These kids have worked extremely hard,” eighth-year coach Jason Gibson said. “It’s been a process and the girls have responded. They’ve worked hard. They’ve never faltered in their belief that they could get here, and I’m just super proud of them.”
Jefferson got 14 points off the bench from Chandler Bragg, who provided a spark with her outside shooting in the Lady Dragons’ seventh-consecutive win.
“She made some big shots for us, and Chandler is capable of doing that,” Gibson said. “She’s an excellent three-point shooter.”
Jefferson led throughout the first half, but Manchester (16-10) rallied to tie the game at 22 with 4:01 left in the third quarter. But Bragg hit three 3-pointers and Abbie Franklin added a pair of buckets, and Jefferson led 35-30 heading into the fourth quarter. From there, the Lady Dragons never looked back.
“That kind of re-boosted my confidence because I had not been shooting well in the first half,” Bragg said of her third-quarter performance. “So to hit those three’s made my confidence go back up — to keep shooting and everything — and that was just awesome. I was glad that I could do that for my team.”
Franklin finished with 13 points despite not having her best night shooting the ball according to Gibson.
“We ask her to do so much more than just score,” Gibson said. “She does everything for us. She’s an outstanding point guard. She’s developed into a really good floor leader. She sees the floor so well.”
Gibson said his team spent the evening trying to limit any transition points or second-chance points from Manchester. Overall, the strategy worked.
“We felt like if we could make them have to beat us on their first-shot offense, then they couldn’t do it,” he said. “We did give up some transition (points), and we definitely gave up some second-chance points, but fortunately for us, it wasn’t enough to break our back.”
Jefferson reached Monday’s Sweet 16 match-up with Manchester thanks to a 48-38 win over Lovett Friday.
In that game, the Lady Dragons clung to an 18-15 lead coming out of halftime but stymied Lovett in the third quarter, holding the Lady Lions scoreless for nearly the entire period. Lovett managed its first basket of the quarter with just 13 seconds left.
“I thought we did a really good job of just limiting them to one chance,” Gibson said. “Our first-shot defense was really good. Once we kind of got on a roll, it snowballed.”
With the Lady Lion offense held in check, Gibson’s squad built a double-digit edge, leading by as much as 23 points in the fourth quarter before Lovett used a 15-2 run to cut Jefferson’s lead to 44-34. But that’s as close as Lovett got.
Franklin led Jefferson with 12 points.
“I was proud of our kids,” Gibson said of the win. “They did a great job. Defense, without a doubt, and rebounding won the game for us (Friday).”
Now, attention turns to today’s (Wednesday’s) Elite Eight game as this group tries to become the first Jefferson team to reach the Final Four since the 2005-2006 squad accomplished that feat.
Lady Dragon players are certainly happy to be playing this late into February.
“It feels awesome because this is the first time in a long time that anybody has made it this far,” Bragg said. “And we’re all really pumped. We’re excited.”