The Gaither girls basketball team began Saturday's Class 4A, District 6 championship game every bit as badly as they began the season. But both have turned out just fine for the upstart Cowboys.
Gaither (10-11) won the district title Saturday by upending top-seeded Hillsborough, 44-43, thanks to a 14-7 edge in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys will host the Region III game Tuesday against Lakeland, which defeated Lakeland-Lake Gibson 68-63 at East Bay in the 4A-5 final Saturday.
The second-seeded Cowboys scored the final points on Melinda Grant's running jumper with 1:50 left. It was Gaither's first lead since a 6-5 edge in the first quarter.
Gaither had battled back from an eight-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, tying the game with a 9-1 run. Offensive rebounding was a key, as the Cowboys twice scored baskets off of their own missed free throws down the stretch.
It was a fitting comeback for Gaither, which started the season 3-9 but has won seven of its last nine.
"We're going to ride this pony as far as it's going to go," Gaither coach Leo Haggerty said. "I've been preaching all along that it doesn't matter until February."
Hillsborough (11-12) came back to take its last lead at 43-41 on a pair of Patrice Candis free throws with 3:48 remaining. Deanna Faison, who led all scorers with 22 points, had a chance to give the Terriers a three-point lead with 2:24 remaining, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. Grant scored the winning bucket 34 seconds later.
Haggerty credited his team's performance in the man-to-man defense as the reason for a comeback from a 22-14 halftime deficit.
"We wanted (Faison) to give it up and not get it back," Haggerty said of the senior forward, who scored 15 points in the first half. "They just didn't have anyone to get it to her."
In the third quarter, Hillsborough led 29-22 when they inadvertently made two points for Gaither by scoring at the wrong end, closing the margin to five. The Terriers regained their composure and took a 36-29 lead just before the end of the quarter before Gaither started its run.