The Deerfield girls basketball team was all smiles during the trophy presentation Saturday night after beating Westfield, 26-25, for the Region 3-AAA title at ABAC. (Shine Rankin/sgasports.net)
TIFTON — The free throw left Candace Cosby’s hands and seemed to hang in the air forever, floating home, and carrying with it a region title and more — so much more.
There was heart, drive, and the ending to a miracle comeback riding on the shot, and it carried with it the heartfelt feelings for a fallen player.
All that dropped through the net Saturday night when Cosby hit the game-winning free throw with 0.3 seconds left to lift the Deerfield-Windsor girls to a 26-25 win against Westfield to capture the GISA 3-AAA title at ABAC, where the Lady Knights stormed the court with hugs and jubilation after completing the comeback.
“Never, never,’’ said Cosby, who scored just one point all night — but it was the biggest point of her life. “I never could have imagined myself winning a game with a free throw. I didn’t even know if I would play this year.’’
She almost didn’t.
Cosby, a senior, tore her ACL last spring while playing for DWS’ soccer team and barely made it back to the court. She played in only three games all year, but she was there when Deerfield needed her most.
“She’s a special player,’’ said coach Ty Kinslow, whose team won its second region title in a row and third in the last four years. “You like to see good things happen to good people, and she’s a great kid. She busted her butt to get back and worked very hard. It was really special to see her make that shot.’’
The comeback was inspiring — for all the right reasons. Heather Lash, a tough, gutsy, heads-up senior who led DWS in rebounding this season, took a hard elbow to the head, hit the floor and had to be carried off the court in the fourth quarter.
“We really wanted to win, and when (Heather) got hurt it pumped us up. It got us even more focused,’’ said Courtney Kelson, who carried DWS down the stretch and finished with a game-high 15 points.
DWS simply couldn’t find the basket in a game dominated by defense, and when Jennia Rust, who led Westfield with 13 points, hit an inside shot with 3:30 left to give Westfeld a 22-15 lead it looked hopeless for the Lady Knights, who did not hit a shot from the floor in the third quarter.
But that’s when Kelson took over. She hit a drive to close to 22-17 and Sabrina Curry followed with a huge 3 to close to 22-20. Rust scored again, but Kelson hit a free throw and then — after a Westfield turnover — Kelson drove into traffic and hit a turn-around jumper that turned the game around. It was 24-23 with 2:10 left, but Westfield didn’t get off another shot from the floor as DWS forced four turnovers in the final two minutes. Rust hit one of two free throws with 43 seconds left, but Kelson answered with a drive, and pull-up jumper from about 10 feet out that knotted things at 25-25 with 23 seconds left.
Westfield held the ball, but turned it over with 15.7 seconds left when the Lady Hornets couldn’t inbound against DWS’ unrelenting defense that forced 26 turnovers on the night.
DWS played for one shot, and Curry hit Cosby with a brilliant pass inside. Cosby, however, was hammered as she attempted the potential game-winner.
“I was nervous when she passed the ball to me,’’ Cosby said. “But when we took the timeout, coach Kinslow reminded me to shoot my free throws at a 60-degree angle. He says that all the time over and over in practice, and when he said it, I just thought about practice and that kind of calmed me down.’’
Kelson said she was never worried.
“I was confident she would make it,’’ she said. “I was absolutely confident she would make it. She works so hard.’’
The comeback left the crowd breathless because points were so hard to come by, but Kinslow said he could almost see it coming when Kelson hit her first shot of the fourth quarter.
“The lid was on the basket for us all night, and when she hit that drive it was like she knocked the lid right off of it,’’ Kinslow said. “And shots starting falling for us. Shooting is contagious. She’s a special player. She has led us in scoring and been our second-leading rebounder all year.’’
It was a special win.
DWS (22-4) now will face Tattnall Square in the opening round of the state playoffs at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Stratford Academy in Macon.