TABOR CITY — Finally.
It’s the only word Red Springs coach Steve Sinclair could think of after his Lady Red Devils earned a 56-52 win over East Columbus on Friday in the Three Rivers Conference tournament championship.
With the win, Red Springs (20-5) snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Lady Gators (19-4), claiming its first conference tournament title since the 2007-08 season.
“It’s no more, ‘We’re good, but we can’t beat East Columbus,’” Sinclair said. “That part is out of the way. Now, we feel like we can beat anybody.”
Behind a stellar effort from Taya Jones, Red Springs rallied from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter, outscoring East Columbus 22-10 over the final five minutes to claim the comeback win.
Jones, the soft-spoken guard known for her scoring ability, tallied 17 second-half points to lead the rally.
“I just knew I had to motivate my team and let them know that we were still in it,” said Jones, who scored a team-high 24 points. “It wasn’t over.”
Jones was equally impressive on the defensive end, suffocating the Lady Gators with full-court pressure in the closing minutes.
“When we turned the pressure up and got our hands on a couple of balls, we got the momentum,” Sinclair said. “I thought it really changed for us when we got a couple of steals.”
With 4:05 left to play, Jones knocked down a pair of free throws, stole the ensuing inbounds pass, and found Victoria Henderson in the corner for a 3-pointer that gave Red Springs a 48-47 advantage.
The Lady Red Devils stretched the lead out to four points at the 2:40 mark, but East Columbus tied the game at 51 after a layup by Tia Campbell.
Like she did throughout the final period, Jones answered the call, attacking the basket and taking advantage of her opportunities at the free-throw line down the stretch. She gave Red Springs the lead for good with 1:16 remaining, knocking down a pair of free throws for a 53-51 lead. After a free-throw by East Columbus trimmed the Red Springs lead to one, Jones answered again at the charity stripe to push the lead back out to two points.
Then, with 23 seconds remaining, Jones prevented East Columbus from attempting a potential game-tying shot, swiping the ball to seal the victory. She missed the layup on the other end, but Katelyn Culbreth was there for one of her nine rebounds, capping the victory with a putback layup for the final tally.
“Taya stepped up,” Sinclair said. “We looked at her and said she started the game aggressive and then took a backseat to everything that was going on. Even though she missed some free throws, the free throws she hit were clutch. Then that big steal at the end kind of sealed it for us.”
Henderson finished with 10 points for the Lady Red Devils, with Taylynn Atkinson adding six points and a team-best 12 rebounds.
Campbell scored 24 points to lead the Lady Gators, with Charity Powell tallying 21.
Red Springs sprinted out of the gate with an 18-10 lead after the first quarter, but East Columbus outscored the Lady Red Devils 16-2 in the second period to carry a 26-20 advantage into the break.
After earning a win that had been elusive for the Red Devils, Jones is brimming with confidence heading into the NCHSAA 2A state playoffs.
“This gives us confidence that we can beat anyone in the playoffs,” she said.
“The only thing I could think about was how they fought through it (against East Columbus),” he said. “This time we finally finished a game. A win like this gives us the ultimate confidence now. Hopefully, it will spill into next week and we can win a couple of games.”