Tuscola girls basketball led for most of the game, but could not quite find the finishing touch in a 51-48 loss to Smoky Mountain Wednesday night.

Sophomore Delany Buchanan led the Mountaineers with 13 points, followed by junior Gracie “John” Glance with 10. Despite a loss to its rival, the story for Tuscola continues to be how this team’s play is night and day from the early part of the year, including a season-opening loss to the Mustangs.

“Our girls, I cannot say enough about it,” said head coach Pam Bryant. “You always want to put one in the win column, for sure. But tonight, our girls fought. I have not been this proud of them from jump to end. We just didn’t finish it. That’s where a lot of inexperience comes in. We haven’t been here before. So we’ve got to figure out, when we’re ahead, when we’re capitalizing, how we actually put a stamp on it and finish it. “But when I talk about how proud and how hard these girls these fought, we have a whole different team than we did at the beginning of the year.”

After Smoky Mountain scored the first four points of the game, Tuscola took over. The Mountaineers were able to force turnovers on defense and hit shots on the other end, and used a 10-1 run to take a 10-5 lead with 2:25 left in the quarter.

After a Mustangs timeout, Buchanan hit an old-fashioned three-point play to give the Mounties an eight-point lead. That closed an impressive opening eight minutes for Tuscola, as the home side took a 13-5 lead into the first break.

With Tuscola up five with four minutes and change to go in the second quarter, Brittany Steppleton drilled a 3 from the wing to put the Mountaineers up 22-14.

With the Mountaineers’ lead cut to three with 20 seconds left in the half, Steppleton again hit a shot from deep to put the Mounties up by six. Tuscola carried that 27-21 lead into halftime.

“We played a rough game last night, it was hard,” Bryant said. “It was great to be able to bounce back and come out in the first half the way we did. At the beginning of the season, I feel like it was like ‘OK, we’re playing basketball.’ Now, I feel like these girls are starting to play basketball to win. They have a different mentality; they have a different vision. They’re creating their identity. That’s what I talked about at the beginning. The wins may not show it, but what people are seeing is a different team and they’re creating their identity of not quitting, they’re getting the work done, they’re getting the job done. It may not be a win right now, but it’s coming.”

After Tuscola maintained its lead for the first five minutes of the third quarter, and even pushed it to seven, Smoky Mountain hit a 7-0 run to tie the game at 31.

With 1:29 left in the third quarter, Smoky Mountain hit a free throw to take its first lead since the opening frame. Buchanan answered right back, however; with a pair of makes from the charity stripe to put Tuscola back in the lead. With under 20 seconds left in the quarter, Glance also hit two free throws to send the Mountaineers to the fourth up 35-32, looking to pick up their third win in five games.

After Tuscola increased its lead to six early in the fourth quarter, Smoky Mountain picked up five unanswered to make it a one-point game.

With the Mountaineers up 42-40 with 3:25 left, the referees did not give Tuscola possession when a Smoky Mountain player stepped over the line on an inbounds pass. Bryant received a technical foul for protesting the call, but the Mustangs hit just one free-throw, and after Tuscola came up with a steal on the ensuing Smoky possession, Steppleton hit a 3 to put Tuscola’s lead back at four.

A quick 5-0 run, however; gave Smoky Mountain its first lead since the first quarter at 46-45 with 2:14 to play. A pair of free throws with just over two minutes left pushed the Mustangs’ lead to three.

With Tuscola down by two with 1:37 to play, a tie up and possession arrow gave the Mountaineers the ball. They came up empty, but a Smoky turnover with 1:01 left gave it right back, and Bryant called a timeout to draw things up.

The Mustangs came up with a steal and layup with under 40 seconds left to push their lead to four, but Glance was fouled and hit both her free throws with 32.9 seconds left to once again bring it within one possession.

The Mountaineers put Smoky on the line with 19 seconds left and the Mustangs hit just one shot, leaving Tuscola with a shot a game-tying triple. The Mountaineers couldn’t find it, but got the ball back with four seconds left and one more chance off another tie-up.

The potential game-tying shot fell short, however, and the Mounties dropped a tight game to their rival.

“Our emotions got us,” Bryant said. “We ended up, instead of playing the game, we were more worried about what was going on with the referees. Again, that’s something inexperience will get. They tried to fight through it, but I think that took over their mentality rather than taking care of the ball, executing the plays and then just getting the job done.”

Tuscola will face Enka on the road Friday.

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