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Saunders’s play lifts Carthage to second straight girls crown

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Zakiya Saunders has put so many Frontier League girls basketball games on her back during her two-year stint with Carthage.

So what’s one more?

The senior point guard scored a season-high 29 points and the Comets held Indian River to just two points in the fourth quarter en route to a 46-40 comeback victory in the “A” Division championship game Saturday afternoon at Jefferson Community College.

“Coach was just like, ‘Do it,’” said Saunders, who shot 13-for-19 from the field and was named the Most Valuable Player of the “A” Division after the game. “We had a job to get done and we just did it.”

Saunders swished a pull-up jumper with just under four minutes left to put Carthage up 40-39, its first lead since early in the second quarter.

She scored in the same fashion with a minute left to give the Comets a 44-40 lead, then sank a pair of free throws with 25 seconds to play to seal the second straight playoff title for Carthage (12-6).

“It was a hard-fought win, and every game we play against Indian River is like that,” Carthage coach Randi Smith said. “I think our teams are so very similar to each other that it makes for a good matchup every time we play them.”

Indian River (12-6) had all the momentum headed into the fourth quarter.

It seized control of the game with a 14-4 second-quarter run, and opened the second half in a full-court press that kept Carthage from getting into rhythm.

But in the fourth, the Warriors were outscored 14-2 and held to just a pair of free throws late in the quarter. They shot 3-for-21 from the field in the second half.

“The first half, I thought we played very well. We just went away from a lot of the things offensively that we did in the first half. We didn’t attack the basket and that made a difference,” Indian River coach Jim Whitley said.

“We made a ton of stops in the third quarter when we kind of went cold as far a shooting, but you can only make so many stops. You have to put the ball in the basket in a championship game and that’s something that we couldn’t do in the fourth quarter.”

Sophomore Gabby O’Brien scored six of her eight points in the second half to help Carthage cope with the loss of its third leading scorer, Kayla Gonzalez. Gonzalez moved out of the area earlier in the week because her father was re-located to another military base.

Gonzalez scored 17 points in Carthage’s victory over Indian River on Jan. 22.

“That was big because we lost a lot of scoring with Kayla’s move, and for Gabby to come in and take on that role in a big pressure game like this, it’s absolutely phenomenal,” Smith said.

Saunders kept the Comets in the game in the first half, scoring 19 of the team’s 26 points. She made her first five shots from the field and went 9-for-13 in the half.

Sophomore Sarah Mattingly scored 11 points to lead Indian River, while seniors Katie Brierton and Emily Kuba added nine and seven points, respectively.

Whitley believes that the two league rivals could be matched up again in the Section 3 Class A playoffs, perhaps as soon as the first round. Pairings will be released on Wednesday.

The teams split their two regular season meetings and the regular season divisional title, finishing with identical 9-3 league records.

“There certainly won’t be any secrets between the two programs,” Whitley said.


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