CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Eight straight.
The Walters State Lady Senators ran its record for consecutive TCCAA/NJCAA Region VII Tournament championships to eight in a row Tuesday afternoon with a 58-51 victory over third-seeded Chattanooga State, and in doing so, completed a perfect worksheet against Tennessee Community College Athletic Association competition for the seventh time in the last eight years.
The 16th-ranked Lady Senators faced off with the Lady Tigers, a matchup of the top two defenses in the league, and the game certainly was a defensive one. But it was the play of sophomore Zacharyia Esmon on the offensive end in the second half that helped push the Lady Senators to the title.
Esmon, who came off the bench in each of the three games in the tournament, scored 15 of her game-high 22 points in the second half, earning tournament MVP honors with her play down the stretch.
The victory, Walters State's 17th in a row, gives the top-seeded Lady Senators (28-4) and coach Dave Kragel their eighth straight trip to the NJCAA National Tournament, which will be contested March 19-23 in Lubbock, Texas. It is also the 12th national tournament trip and region title in the last 13 seasons and the 16th overall national tournament bid for WSCC, as the Lady Senators have now won 165 of their last 166 games in league play.
The loss brought a close to the season for the Lady Tigers, as they finished just shy of their first national tournament appearance since 2010. Chattanooga State wrapped up the season at 21-9 after wins over Southwest Tennessee and Motlow State in the tournament.
Chattanooga State scored the first five points of the game, as Ashylan Baker opened the scoring with a jumper and Mackenzie Trouten knocked down the first of her two 3-pointers in the first frame for a 5-0 lead before Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Brianna Dixon scored on back-to-back possessions to get WSCC on the board.
The Lady Tigers led by five on four occasions in the first period, with the last coming when Baker drove the lane and was fouled on a shot attempt and made both free throws for a 14-9 lead after one.
Jalayah Manning gave the Lady Senators an instant jolt of offense in the second period, scoring eight points in the frame, including the first bucket, which Esmon followed with a 3-point play to knot the score at 14 early in the period.
Chattanooga State led 18-16 before Manning scored two straight buckets to finally give Walters State its first lead of the game at 20-18 with 3:42 left in the half. The Lady Tigers briefly reclaimed the lead later in the second, but a free throw from Diamond Forrest and a layup by Dixon in the final seconds gave the Lady Senators a 23-21 halftime lead.
WSCC shot 43.5 percent (10 of 23) from the field in the half, missing all three attempts from 3-point range while making 3 of 5 at the free throw line. The Lady Senators committed six turnovers and were outrebounded 16-15 in the opening 20 minutes, including 7-1 on the offensive glass. Manning led all scorers with eight in the half, followed closely by Esmon with seven.
Chattanooga State shot just 29.6 percent (8 of 27) from the floor, making 2 of 11 from long range and just 3 of 10 at the charity stripe. Trouten paced the Lady Tigers with six points in the first 20 minutes.
The teams exchanged baskets early on in the third, with Chattanooga's Rachel Sanders scoring eight points in the frame, including consecutive buckets in the paint to give the Lady Tigers a 29-27 lead. Esmon answered back on the next possession with a 3-pointer for the lead, but another basket by Sanders put the Lady Tigers back in front, 32-31.
Mendjiadeu hit two free throws to put Walters State back in the lead, and a 3-point play by Jamya Rogers extended it to four. After Chattanooga State scored in the final 30 seconds to cut the lead in half, Esmon buried a triple from the top of the key at the horn to put WSCC up 39-34 heading to the fourth.
Chattanooga State never got closer than three in the fourth, but the Lady Tigers certainly made it interesting. Walters State grabbed a 50-41 lead after a bucket by Mendjiadeu, but two straight baskets by Chattanooga cut the margin to five with two minutes left. From there, it was all WSCC, as Rogers hit a free throw, Mendjiadeu added a bucket and Manning hit a pair of charity tosses before another free throw from Rogers made it an 11-point lead, the largest of the game.
The Lady Tigers got the margin down to a half-dozen, but it was with less than 20 seconds left and the Lady Senators held on of the win.
Walters State shot 45.7 percent (21 of 46) from the field in the win, making 3 of 8 from long range and 13 of 23 at the charity stripe while being outrebounded 32-25 in the game. Esmon's 22 points led all scorers, while Mendjiadeu added 12 and Manning had 11 in the win.
Chattanooga State shot 37.3 percent (19 of 51) from the floor, making just 3 of 17 on 3-point attempts and 10 of 19 at the line. Sanders tallied 12 points, while Baker added 11 and Trouten finished with 10 in the defeat.