LINCOLN — As early as last season, putting Toni Tupper at the foul line for Lincoln Northeast was probably good strategy by the Rockets’ opponent.
But Wednesday night, Tupper showed how far she has come at the stripe.
The 6-foot-3 junior hit two free throws with 3.5 seconds left to give Class A No. 10 Northeast a 42-41 win at No. 7 Lincoln Southwest in the A-6 district final. The victory was the Rockets’ first in three tries this season against Southwest (20-5) and sends Northeast (17-6) to the state tournament for the second straight year.
“I was like ‘At least make one of them to tie the game up,’ ” Tupper said. “Then, I shot the second one, and it bounced around, and I got really scared, but then it went in.”
Tupper, who finished with a game-high 16 points, was 6 for 6 at the foul line. That performance came from a player who Rockets coach Steve Bartek said was a “20 or 30 percent” foul shooter her first two seasons.
“I’ve never had a free-throw shooter I’ve worked with make such a dramatic improvement from the mid-30s to close to 70 percent,” Bartek said. “We had thought about making her shoot underhand or one-handed like Shaq. But when she got fouled, we were confident.”
Northeast was clearly comfortable at the line, hitting 17 of 21 free throws overall.
The Rockets started their final possession after the Silver Hawks took their only lead of the fourth quarter on Baleigh Miller’s 3-pointer with 23 seconds to play. Tupper was sandwiched between two defenders in the post, but managed to haul in a lob from Morgan Ewing and was fouled putting up a shot.
After Tupper’s second free throw hit every part of the rim and dropped in, Southwest got the ball to senior Lauren Works, but the Creighton recruit’s halfcourt heave was off the mark as time expired.
Works led the Silver Hawks with 15 points, but was largely stymied as she was the focus of Northeast’s diamond-and-one defense. Northeast guards Devin and Jaci Edwards were tasked with guarding Works, who shot 5 for 17 from the floor.
Southwest shot 28 percent from the field (14 of 50) and made 4 of 23 3-pointers.
“We didn’t knock down 3s like we normally do,” Silver Hawks coach Lis Brenden said. “It came down to making baskets, and they made more down the stretch than we did. We got a lot of good looks from our shooters, and we didn’t knock things down. We needed our studs to knock shots down, and that didn’t happen tonight.”
Southwest went up 26-20 midway through the third quarter, but couldn’t pull away unlike its two earlier wins against the Rockets. Northeast’s Tantashea Giger hit a 3-pointer, and Shaneequah Watkins added eight of her 10 points in a four-minute stretch during the third and fourth quarters to put Northeast ahead.
“The whole second half, I just felt something good was going to happen in the fourth quarter,” Bartek said. “We’ve lost two games to Southwest already, and sometimes it’s not easy to beat a good team a third time.”
Lincoln Northeast (17-6)...................10 7 12 13—42
At Lincoln Southwest (20-5).............10 8 10 13—41
LNE: Toni Tupper 16, Shaneequah Watkins 10, Jamie Holscher 6, Tantashea Giger 5, Morgan Ewing 5
LSW: Lauren Works 15, Marysa Wilkinson 9, Baleigh Miller 6, Abby Meader 6, McKenna Dodd 3, Brooke Knapp 2
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