Chelsea withstands comeback, wins thriller

Published 10:51 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Josh Hanna makes a move to the basket during Chelsea's sub-regional win over Fort Payne on Feb. 16. (Contributed / Cari Dean)

Josh Hanna makes a move to the basket during Chelsea’s sub-regional win over Fort Payne on Feb. 16. (Contributed / Cari Dean)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

CHELSEA – This is becoming something of a habit for Nicholas Baumbaugh and company.

Chelsea, just three days removed from a frantic, come-from-behind two-point win against Oxford in the 6A Area 10 finals, found itself hosting Fort Payne in the sub-regional round of the 6A playoffs on Feb. 16. The scene and environment was eerily similar to a season ago, when the overachieving 2015 Hornets hosted Albertville in the sub-regional round and beat the Aggies in overtime in an 82-77 instant classic.

That game a season ago was tight throughout, with neither team ever truly taking a commanding lead. This game started out different than that game a season ago did, however it ended in quite the same fashion, with the Hornets pulling out a 68-64 overtime win to get back to the Sweet Sixteen.

“Coming into the game, I was telling our guys it was more about just doing the things that we do,” a contented and exhausted Baumbaugh said after the game. “We worked a lot of their stuff today and over the last few days trying to get ready for them. But we just wanted to do our stuff, focus on what we do well offensively and defensively.”

Part of what Chelsea does well offensively is feed senior Aaron Washington when he’s hot. And Washington, the heart of this Chelsea team, was scorching early. The senior hit three three’s in the first quarter, two of them from the volleyball line, to set the tone early as Chelsea jumped out to a 17-9 lead after the first quarter.

“If I’m open, I’m going to shoot,” Washington said after the game, a grin plastered on his face.

Washington, Joseph Lanzi, Matt Marquet and Josh Hanna combined to score all of Chelsea’s first half points. Chelsea is not a big team, with the sophomore Hanna providing the most size the Hornets have to offer, however Fort Payne was as small as Chelsea if not smaller, and Hanna had a productive half in the paint, scrapping for all of his five points first half points. A few more deep threes from Washington in the second, and Chelsea held a 34-23 lead at the half.

Five points from Lanzi and a bucket from Marquet to start the third pushed Chelsea’s lead to 41-23 early in the third, and the Hornets seemed to be in cruise control mode. However, Fort Payne did not lie down and roll over for Chelsea, as the Wildcats, on the back of Wanya Knight, began to claw back into the game.

“They defended differently in the second half,” Baumbaugh said. “They came out and picked us up further out in the man-pressure.”

Fort Payne, which had played a sinking 2-3 defense for most of the first half, extended its defense well past half-court in the second half, and the pressure affected Chelsea as the Hornets saw their lead drop from 18 to 12 entering the fourth quarter at 46-32.

The Fort Payne offense went as Knight went all nigh, but in the fourth quarter the athletic guard began to truly assert himself on offense. Knight went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in the fourth and hit three big buckets to finish the quarter with 13 points. The game was tightly called throughout, and the fourth quarter at times slowed to a crawl, as the two teams combined to shoot 30 free throws in the fourth quarter alone.

As the fourth quarter drew on, Fort Payne steadily closed the gap. When Lanzi drew his fifth foul late in the quarter with Chelsea only up 58-51, the energy in the gym began to shift. Chelsea tightened up, and couldn’t find the same offensive rhythm that had defined much of the first half. When Chelsea turned the ball over with under 40 seconds left, and Hanna was called for goaltending on the ensuing fast break, Chelsea fell behind for the first time in the game, 60-59, with 16 seconds left.

Washington took the in-bounds pass and sprinted the length of the floor. He dive-bombed into the lane and tossed up a shot, flying into the wall behind the basket and drawing a foul. After missing the first, the senior guard had one free throw to keep his final high school season alive. After taking a moment to collect himself, he took a breath and nailed his second offering, tying the game at 60 and sending it into overtime.

“I knew, if I missed that shot, I was going to go home and cry,” Washington said after the game, unable to wipe the well-deserved grin from his face. “Because I was not trying to lose the game. Thank God that I made it.”

Without Lanzi to help direct the offense in overtime, Chelsea was without one of its primary offensive weapons. And after Hanna missed the back end of a pair of free throws and promptly fouled out less than a minute into the overtime period, it was Marquet who came to the rescue late. After trading free throws, Knight hit a runner in the lane to give Fort Payne a 65-64 lead. Chelsea turned the ball over on the next possession, and the game appeared to be over.

Baumbaugh opted not to foul on the ensuing Fort Payne possession, and the decision paid off as an errant pass flew out of bounds with 30 second left on the clock. Marquet took the ball to the hole on the next play, and drew a foul.

The athletic swingman calmly stepped to the line and nailed both free throws, barely drawing iron as the pair found the bottom of the net. After Knight lost control of the ball on the next possession, Marquet hit two more free throws and Washington sunk the backbreaker with less than five seconds left to give Chelsea the 68-64 win.

The Hornets will return to the 6A Sweet Sixteen, where they will play Center Point at Jacksonville State on Feb. 22 at 1:30 p.m.