Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the Owen girls basketball team needed a strong finish to pick up momentum for the Western Highlands Conference tournament.
The Warlassies responded with five straight wins, beating Madison and Mitchell four times in as many games, to post the second-best regular season record in the WHC.
They head into the postseason playing some of their best basketball of the year, despite a stumble.
In the final few days of January, Owen fell to 2-3 in the conference (14-5 overall) with back-to-back road losses to Mountain Heritage and Avery. It was the first time the Warlassies lost consecutive games this season.
Owen finished the month with a convincing 59-40 win at Polk. The remaining four games were a pair of contests against Madison and two more against Mitchell.
Coming into their Feb. 2 game against Madison, the Warlassies have been 1-7 in regular season against the Patriots since the 2013-14 season.
A 28-point second quarter put Owen up by 14 heading into the half. The Warlassies held off a comeback by the Patriots in the second half to seal the 56-51 victory. The two teams would square off again in the gym at Owen three days later.
Senior Kristyl Keeter hit a buzzer-beating layup for the Warlassies at home on Feb. 5 to give Owen its second straight win over the Patriots, 53-52, and a three-game winning streak.
The victory set the stage for a dramatic Senior Night at Owen Feb. 6, when the Warlassies and their 5-3 conference record hosted Mitchell, also 5-3 in the WHC. The winner would be in second place in the conference. 8. Both teams were in for an exciting finish.
The teams went into the half tied at 22, with Mitchell having the advantage through the first quarter before Owen held the Mountaineers to just 9 points in the second quarter. But out of the halftime break, Mitchell adjusted and the Warlassies went cold, scoring only 4 points in the quarter.
Senior Caitlin Ledford, who scored a season-high 15 points in her final regular season home game, pulled the game even at 37 with a three-pointer in the fourth quarter. The game would tied again at 39, but Chesney Gardner hit a free throw to put the Warlassies up 40-39. Senior Ashley Valencia would close it out with a pair of free throws of her own.
The crowd in the gym erupted at the final buzzer.
Following the game, head coach Aaron Fernandez said he’s proud of his team’s performance this season.
“That’s three games in a row they’ve had to dig down deep to finish a game,” he said of players. “And it’s four straight wins since we hit that rough patch.”
The Warlassies still had one more game on the road in Mitchell County against a Mountaineers team which had proven to be a tough opponent.
Owen led for three of four quarters in its fifth straight win to close out the regular season at 19-5. It’s the best regular season performance by the Warlassies in at least a decade, and gives them a number 2 ranking and an opening round bye heading into the WHC tournament, which started Feb. 12.
The Warlassies will play the winner of the opening round Polk vs. Mitchell game (results not available as of press deadline) on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Madison High School. The games begin at 4 p.m.
Owen goes into the postseason with a 19-5 record, putting a 20-win season within reach for Fernandez, who is in his first season as a head coach.
"I had a feeling going into the season that we would do well," he said. "I just didn't know what success would look like with this team."
Winning five in a row to close out the regular season left players feeling confident, according to Fernandez.
"They should be proud of how they've played so far," he said. "They had a really good season last year and won 19 games (that) they've been able to match just in the regular season this year."
Fernandez believes his team is peaking at just the right time.
"We're where we want to be," he said. "I'm a believer that you should be playing your best basketball late in the season, which we're doing. And right now we're playing our best defensive basketball by far."
That bodes well for the Warlassies as the postseason approaches, he added.
"Right now I feel confident playing anybody," he said.