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Valiant effort by Lady Blazers comes up just short in NCAA South Regional

Posted at 6:06 PM, Mar 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-10 18:06:57-05

TAMPA, Fla. – Trailing by as many as 11 in the second half, the No. 6-seed Valdosta State women's basketball team battled all the way back and took the lead with 4:14 to go, but No. 3-seed Union responded ending the Lady Blazers' season with a 58-52 setback in the first round of the NCAA South Regional Friday afternoon.

VSU finished its season with a 22-7 record overall and went a school-best 20-4 in Gulf South Conference play this season under fourth-year head coach Deandra Schirmer. "Our team came out and we knew it was going to be a dogfight from the beginning and Union has been a perennial powerhouse for a reason," Schirmer said. Union is very well coached and has all of the components of a championship level team. We knew it was going to a take a 'super hero' performance from us, but I know we have a team with the heart of a champion. We talked about grit and perseverance and no matter what the score is, we will keep coming. I could not be more proud of this group on how, no matter what knock out punch Union tried to throw, we responded. Union hit some big 3's, especially in the third quarter, and for our group to respond in the manner we did, take the lead and almost pull it out, I am very proud of them."

Click here for the NCAA South Region Championship Central webpage and where the postgame interviews are located.

The Lady Blazers, who trailed by as many as 11 with 2:21 to play in the third quarter, roared back with back-to-back triples from Lili Long as Union held a 45-37 lead heading into the fourth. The momentum carried over to the fourth for the Lady Blazers as junior Emma Martin buried a jumper with 8:55 to go to get the rally started. She then hit a triple pulling VSU within 45-42 with 7:50 to go after a turnover on the Lady Bulldogs. Junior Tamiya Francis pulled VSU within one at 45-44 with a jumper and 6:27 remaining as VSU opened the final stanza with a 7-0 run. Union's Samariah Thomson scored a triple off a big offensive rebound from Naomi Van Nes with five minutes to go to put Union back up four at 48-44.

Long drained another triple puling VSU within one, once again, with 4:44 to go and then sophomore Kate Tanner had a steal and layup for a bucket and the Lady Blazers' first lead since the first quarter at 49-48 with 4:14 to play.

Turnovers plagued both teams, but none more costly than down the stretch as neither team scored again until the 1:54 mark as Union's Samariah Thomspon hit two free throws for the third lead change of the game and a 50-49 Union lead. She then hit a jumper with 37 seconds left for a 52-49 lead for a team high 14 points and 6 of 6 from the line for the game.

Still within reach, the Lady Blazers kept fighting, but an errant shot, a turnover and one of two at the line for Union made the score 54-49 with 24 seconds left. VSU wouldn't go down without a fight as Long drained another one from distance with 13 ticks let for a 54-52 deficit. VSU fouled and Thompson made both tosses. Senior Jirah Ards had a great look at a triple with four seconds left, but it wouldn't go down and VSU had to foul with Shanique Lucas making both tosses. Lucas finished with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds.

In a true "March Madness" worthy contest with lots of diving for the ball and good defense, VSU held Union (27-3) to 17 of 50 from the field for 34 percent, while the Lady Bulldogs were nine of 28 from deep (32.1%) and 15 of 20 from the line, including 8 of 10 in the fourth quarter. Union moves on to face either No. 2-seed Eckerd or No. 7-seed Nova Southeastern on Saturday. Shanique Lucas and Bethany Dillard each finished with 12 points.

The Lady Blazers finished 19 of 52 from the field, 9 of 23 from beyond the arc and 5 6 from line. VSU didn't attempt a free throw in the fourth quarter or the second quarter. The Lady Blazers held a 35-32 lead in rebounding, but 21 turnovers lead to 13 points for Union. VSU forced 14 miscues by Union, just four in the second half, and scored 20 points off the turnovers. Long finished 6 of 8 from the field and 5 of 6 from deep with four rebounds for 17 points earning Guardian Bank Blazer Player of the Game. Senior Jirah Ards went 5 of 12 from the field and one triple for 11 points.

Ards set the tone early for the Lady Blazers for a 3-0 lead on a triple as VSU raced out to a 10-4 lead with 6:24 left in the first quarter. Lucas gave Union it's first lead of the game at 11-10 with a jumper and then Bethan Dillard drained one from the corner pocket for a 14-10 lead. The Lady Bulldogs ended the quarter with a triple just before time expired in the quarte and a 19-14 lead.

Union stretched the lead to as many as eight with three minutes remaining in the half, but VSU had another great answer sparked with a jumper from Ards, followed by a triple from Long a for a 27-24 deficit at the break.

The Lady Bulldogs opened the second half on an 8-0 run as VSU made just one field goal and one free throw over the first five minutes and change of the quarter. Junior Emma Martin drained one from down town after Union had pushed the lead back to double digits. Union's Lauren West drained a triple for a 43-32 lead, prior to Long's buckets at the end of the quarter.