As the final seconds ticked off of the clock during the championship game on Feb. 27, there was no doubt that the four Maryville seniors had finally claimed the conference crown that had snuck away from them three years prior.
The No. 1 seed Scots punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament with a 60-48 victory over No. 2 seed Piedmont College in the USA South Athletic Conference championship.
The championship win marks the first USA South tournament title for the women’s basketball team since joining the league.
Mackenzie Puckett earned the coveted most valuable player award, pouring in 25 points against the Lady Lions. Puckett shot 10-16, while splashing in a perfect 3-of-3 from the trey.
When asked about her feelings before the championship game, Puckett says she was more fired up than nervous.
“It was such a great opportunity to host the conference tournament, so I was ready to seize that opportunity,” Puckett said. “I was still nervous, but the excitement overpowered the nerves.”
Piedmont gave the Lady Scots their first and only loss in conference play on Feb. 3. The Scots came back to beat the Lady Lions on Feb. 17 with a score of 63-53 and were able to hand them another loss to claim the conference crown.
“The first Piedmont loss woke us up”, Puckett said. “We have to play hard, aggressive and together for us to win games, and that reminded us of that. We all have to be on board for this team to reach its potential. It obviously paid off! I’m just glad we learned from it so we could come back and be champions”
The 25 points that the MVP dumped on Saturday helped push Puckett to a personal milestone as she exceeded 1,500 career points while in orange and garnet. The tournament MVP now has 1,509 career points tucked under her belt as the Scots look towards their first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday.
Jordan Ballard and Madison Maples were also praised as they were named to the USA South All-Tournament squad for their stellar play in the tournament.
Maples stepped up and shot 4-of-7 from behind the arc, including three-straight three’s that helped get the ball rolling for the Lady Scots in the second half.
Throughout the last two games of the tournament, Ballard took an incredible nine charges to help the Scots seal victories over LaGrange College and Piedmont. During Saturday’s big game, the stand out senior finished with seven steals, six points, five assists and two rebounds.
“When I take a charge, it is just instinct now that I’ve done it so many times,” Ballard said. “The first couple of times I prepared myself and just kind of closed my eyes and took it, but now when I take them I don’t have to prepare for them. I’m just in the right spot at the right time and my instinct is to just take one for the team and lay my body on the line for everyone out there.”
While playing a majority of her senior season on a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, the point guard shares what her greatest challenges are with the injury.
“It has been having to understand what I can and can’t do now in regards to how I play the game,” Ballard said. “Before I hurt my knee, I was a point guard who could push, push and push the ball without hesitation.”
Ballard says that adjusting to the new style of play has been the greatest challenge she’s faced while enduring her knee injury, but it did not seem to stop her from helping claim the conference crown for her and her Scots.
Maryville shot 37 percent from beyond the floor, hitting 20-of-54 while tallying up eight treys in the game. MC also out-rebounded the Lions 39-31, while their lock-down defense forced Piedmont into 22 turnovers, securing 16 steals along the way.
With a packed stadium and raging fans, the Lady Scots took on the University of Mary Washington on Mar. 4 for the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The battle remained neck-and-neck between the teams for most of the game until the fourth quarter, when the Scots amped up both their defensive and offensive play. Led by 22 points from Puckett, MC took the game 67-56.
MC advanced to the next round of the NCAA tournament again Birmingham-Southern on Mar. 5 and, after a come-back in the fourth quarter, snagged their spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 25 years. Randy Lambert Court was once again packed with excited fans who cheered on the team through the entire face-off. Led by Madison Maples with 19 points and Lauren Biliter with 8 rebounds, the Lady Scots finished the game 63-56.
No. 16 Maryville finished their season with a 16-0 home record. The Lady Scots will travel to face the defending National Champion Thomas Moore Saints in Crestview Hills, Ky in hopes of continuing their road to unprecedented success.