Chelsea’s season ends in Elite Eight with loss to Hewitt-Trussville

Published 5:51 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

JACKSONVILLE – For the fourth time in 2024, the Chelsea Hornets were faced with overcoming the challenge of the No. 6 Hewitt-Trussville Huskies, this time with their season on the line in the Northeast Regional Final on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

In the end, the Hornets came up short again in a 54-44 loss at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum, but Chelsea coach Jason Harlow hopes that the result doesn’t detract from a stellar season.

“Just really proud of the effort my kids showed over the course of this season,” Harlow said. “Coming into the year, graduating seven seniors and only having two kids coming back that were seniors that weren’t some of our statistical leaders, I’m really proud of the result of the entire season.”

The Huskies flew out of the gate with a 10-0 start behind a pair of 3-pointers in the first five minutes.

That triggered a Chelsea timeout with 3:03 left in the first quarter, which calmed down the pace of the game and let the Hornets get back into the game.

Caroline Brown scored Chelsea’s first basket of the contest with 2:24 remaining in the first, but Hewitt responded with a pair of field goals.

Haley Trotter then took over the rest of the quarter with a three-point play and a field goal in the final minute of the quarter to cut the deficit to 15-7 at the end of the first.

Trotter and Brown continued to lead the way for the Hornets to start the second quarter as they made it a six-point game with 5:40 remaining in the half.

However, the Huskies dominated from deep and hit a trio of 3-pointers throughout the half to keep the pressure on Chelsea.

That put the Hornets down 11 with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the half, but they had a response up their sleeve before the break.

Chelsea went on a 6-1 run in the final three minutes of the quarter thanks to baskets from Trotter, Allie Scott and Sadie Schwallie, which left the halftime score at 29-23 and made it a two-possession game to start the second half.

Schwallie opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three, and after the Huskies responded with a pair of free throws, Brown made it a three-point game once again with 6:26 left in the third.

Hewitt-Trussville found its long range shooting once again and hit a pair of 3-pointers to take a nine-point lead.

The pace slowed down for the rest of the quarter as Chelsea couldn’t get closer than seven, and a scoreless final minute of the third left the Huskies up 41-32 going into the fourth quarter.

Trotter and Brown clawed back a pair of points from the free throw line to make it a single digit game again after a Hewitt basket to start the fourth, which kicked off a tightly fought fourth quarter where the Hornets answered nearly every shot that the Huskies made.

However, they couldn’t close the gap and Hewitt-Trussville put the game away on the free throw line to win by 10.

Trotter had a double-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Brown joined her in double-figures with 14 points. Olivia Pryor scored four points and Madeline Epperson had four rebounds and three steals to go with her two points in the final game of her Hornets career.

After the game, Harlow felt like his team didn’t play well out of the gate and a talented, veteran team like Hewitt-Trussville made Chelsea show their age, especially since they started a freshman in Pryor, a sophomore in Brown, two juniors in Schwallie and Trotter and one senior in Epperson.

“Just disappointed at the result,” Harlow said. “I didn’t feel like we played very good basketball at times tonight, but that’s a credit to Hewitt-Trussville. We have a young team, we’re going to keep working and try to get back in this game and hopefully learn something from it.”

Brown echoed that belief and thought that the run to the Elite Eight will make them better for the future by showing them what it means to play playoff basketball.

“I feel like we’re really young, inexperienced, at least a lot of us are,” Brown said. “I feel like this year is a really good year to just experience what playoff basketball is, how tough it is and how it’s a grind.”

Chelsea will drop down to Class 6A next year with four of their five starters returning from a 23-6 team, but the Hornets will lose two of their key senior leaders in Epperson and Baylor McCluney.

After their final game with Chelsea, Harlow praised both of his seniors for their hard work and leadership that didn’t always show up on the stat sheet but will be greatly missed next year.

“Neither one of them are 5-foot-5, and they’re both softball-first but two of the highest character kids I’ve ever coached,” Harlow said of Epperson and McCluney. “And so, for all the talent we have coming back, and I understand that people are going to look at us on paper and think that we’re going to be really good, if we don’t learn from those two seniors on how to approach the day-to-day and practice and grind and learn something from their character, then all bets are off next year. I can’t say enough about those two kids.”