For a second consecutive year, Oneida's Lady Indians find themselves one game away from a berth in the state sectionals, after defeating Tellico Plains 57-51 in Friday's regional quarterfinals.
After watching the Bears get off to a blazing start and build an 11-0 lead, Oneida rallied and eventually led by as much as 16 points late in the third quarter. Then the Lady Indians had to out-last Tellico Plains, as the visitors cranked up the defensive intensity to force a number of turnovers as they slowly carved into the Oneida lead.
Micah Stephens finished with 18 points and seven rebounds to lead Oneida, and was six-of-eight from the free throw line, while Baylee Newport added 15 points.
But standing large at the end of the game were Rachael Thomas's 11 points. Thomas scored those 11 points consecutively in a third quarter stretch that saw Oneida turn a 34-29 lead into a 45-30 lead late in the third quarter.
Similar to the third quarter of the district semifinals at Wartburg, Thomas found herself red-hot from the 3-point line in a decisive stretch for the Lady Indians. Thomas made three straight treys as Oneida took control.
It was Tellico Plains, the regular season runner-up in District 3-A, who hit three straight 3s out of the gate. The Bears built an 11-0 lead and had OHS Gymnasium in a stunned silence.
But Newport, who keyed an Oneida rally at the end of the District 4-A championship game that came up just short, scored six straight points for the Lady Indians, and Oneida closed the first quarter on a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to four.
Playing an aggressive, in-your-face defense, Oneida kept Tellico Plains off-balance in the second quarter. The Bears hit just one-of-eight 3-point shot attempts after their three-for-three start, and Oneida surged to a 27-20 halftime lead against a defense that was clearly flustered.
Tellico Plains scored the first four points of the third quarter on a pair of free throws by Valerie Cheek — who finished with a team-high 14 points — and a jumper by Brayden Garren, cutting the gap to 27-24. But the Lady Indians struck right back with buckets from Kelsie Caldwell and Newport.
Oneida built the lead to eight on a 3-pointer by Destini Carson, only to see the Bears respond after a time out with a Jasmine Harris triple to cut the lead back to five, 34-29.
That's when Thomas cranked it up. The senior guard hit back-to-back 3-pointers to push the lead to 40-29, then hit another trey to make it 43-29 before capping her run with a mid-range jumper. A Jessi Morgan free throw later, Oneida led 46-30, and Tellico Plains appeared stunned.
But the Bears would not go away without a fight. A 3-point play by McKinley Dalton at the end of the third quarter cut the lead to 13, and Tellico Plains slowly trimmed the lead in the final period.
The Bears got the lead to eight on a pair of free throws by Cheek with 3:49 to play, then saw Cheek go back to the line to cut the gap to seven.
Oneida was able to get the lead back to nine on a pair of Newport free throws, but Cheek found herself open from 3-point range and cut the gap to six, 52-46.
Tellico Plains could get no closer, however. Victoria Williams nailed a shot the next trip down court, and from there Oneida simply made its free throws.
After a sub-standard shooting performance in the first half for both teams, Oneida wound up shooting 41 percent from the field, and 13-of-20 from the free throw line. Tellico Plains finished just 29 percent from the field, and was 14-of-20 from the line.
Behind Williams' nine rebounds, Oneida out-rebounded Tellico Plains 35-32. That was despite a bit effort by McKinley Dalton, who had six offensive rebounds en route to a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.
The Lady Indians will face Grace Christian Monday in the Region 2-A semifinals at Wartburg. The Rams finished third in District 3-A in the regular season but went on a surprise run in the tournament to defeat both Tellico Plains and state-ranked Meigs County. On Friday, Grace survived an upset bid by Oakdale, which led most of the night before falling 52-48.
Tipoff is 6 p.m. Monday.
ONEIDA (57): Micah Stephens 18, Baylee Newport 15, Rachael Thomas 11, Victoria Williams 6, Destini Carson 3, Jessi Morgan 2, Kelsie Caldwell 2.
TELLICO PLAINS (51): Valerie Cheek 14, Jasmine Harris 12, Brayden Garren 11, McKinley Dalton 10, Brittany Kirkland 4.