SULLIVAN -- Fear took over the Tuscola Warriors for a moment with five minutes left in the game.

The team's lone senior, go-to scorer, back-up ball-handler and leader, Emma Henderson, walked to the bench after picking up her fifth foul.

Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond immediately turned nine straight points.

But one by one, the younger Warriors stepped up. Alexis Koester stopped the bleeding with a couple free throws, Jackie Watson jumped a pass and Lexie Russo added two more free throws before Natalie Bates and Watson sank a few more. Tuscola hung on 45-43 in the Class 2A Sullivan Regional championship.

"They wanted to win, and they really, truly wanted to win for Emma tonight," Tuscola coach Tim Kohlbecker said. "She's been their leader all year. When she went out, they had a chance to fold it up and they didn't."

The Knights certainly came as close as they could to finishing the comeback. The 9-0 run put them within two as Liz Shipman had eight of her 12 points in the fourth quarter. She took a pass from Megan Fifer and drained a 3 to pull ALAH within one with seconds left. But Tuscola was able to inbound the ball and Watson made a free throw with 0.3 seconds left to seal the win.

That left Tuscola flooded with a wave of relief.

It was a stressful five minutes without Henderson on the floor.

"It was kind of scary," Lexie Russo said.

Henderson only let it sink in for a moment.

"It's a little scary fouling out with five minutes left, but I knew I was leaving it with people I could trust," she said. "I wasn't worried because I knew we would somehow pull it out."

That's been Tuscola's M.O. this year. With the Warriors come a little chaos, but they've been able to put on a nice bow by the end of games. Kohlbecker marveled at the resiliency of the group, now somehow 22-5.

That's come with a young team, including the younger Russo, Lexie, who had 15 rebounds and 14 points. The sophomore worked her way into position to grab offensive and defensive rebounds, coaxed ALAH's defense to foul her and cleaned up other's shots to keep runs going.

"One of my best," Russo said. "It's a big game, a lot on the line tonight."

She's made the growth needed for Tuscola to go back-to-back-to-back as regional champions.

"Last year, she didn't even dress varsity," Henderson said. "And this year, she's just stepped up tremendously. Beginning of the year, she didn't make any free throws and she knocked down crucial free throws this game. She's grown more than anyone I've seen personally since I've been here."

Kohlbecker fought back tears while taking the celebratory photo.

This Tuscola group wasn't expected to keep up the string of regional titles and 22-win seasons. Not with replacing experienced seniors with sophomores learning the varsity pace.

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"I'm an emotional guy. For them I am," he said. "They all mean a lot, obviously they do. But they've been so good to work with.

"I know kids complain when I'm not listening, but I never heard a complaint from any of them. None of them said, 'Hey coach, we don't want to practice today.' They never complain about the time I ask them to come in. Some of them ask to come in on Sundays. You gotta love kids like that."

Aren's take

Just short

The Knights have had a lot of heartbreak in recent postseasons. Between this two-point loss, last year's stunner against Okaw Valley and a three-point loss to Arcola two years ago, it's been a tough stretch for the co-op.

Knights coach Craig Moffett was still processing the game moments afterward, but said the tenacity his team played with was not lost on him.

"It's kind of a blur at this point," he said. "I think you can all execute better, limit turnovers. It's not for a lack of trying, it just how it works sometimes."

This senior group is Moffett's first he's seen all the way through, as players like Mycaela Miller, Peyton Wellbaum and Megan Fifer have played big minutes for several years.

"They're really great for the program," Moffett said. "A lot of them have worked extra. Good teammates."

"I'm definitely going to miss them."

Feeding the paint

There's a (maybe not-so-well) hidden talent with this Tuscola team -- the high-low. It works well with Emma Henderson and Cassie Russo, as it's hard to match that height and physicality. Lexie Russo has been a key component of that as well.

"I can trust Cassie to go get the ball," Henderson said. "Sometimes I throw risky passes because I know she'll get them. Especially with the inside-out, it works really well. "

Rolling the dice

Both Cassie Russo and Henderson picked up two fouls in the first six minutes of the game.

Kohlbecker took them out, but only for a short amount of time.

"I'm more of a gambler. When they got fouls, I'm going to play them probably," he said. "So I took a gamble and luckily, Natalie Bates held us together at the end, I think."

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adow@herald-review.com|(217) 421-6978


Sports Writer

Sports Writer for the Herald & Review.

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