Finishing Touch: Lady Lions vow not to feel sting of playoff loss again

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY, News-Telegram Sports Editor

Feb. 14, 2008 - SALTILLO - The Saltillo Lady Lions felt the sting of a last-second defeat last year in the regional quarterfinals.

So, as the playoffs open for them tomorrow, have they forgotten and moved on? No, not at all.

Oh, the Lady Lions have moved on - they are ranked No. 1 in the state in Class A, Div. II by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches and sport a 28-3 record. But, they sure haven't forgotten the loss to Kennard.

"We make sure that everything we do, we're finishing it," said Winter Johnson, a four-year starter and All-State guard. "We don't want to get beat in the playoffs like we did last year. That's our encouragement in every practice. Kennard's not going to get a shot off like last year and beat us. Whether it's Kennard or Gary, any team that we're playing, we use that as encouragement."

The Lady Lions, champions of District 22-A, will face Gary, the runner-up in District 23, at 7 p.m. Friday at Longview Pine Tree. If Saltillo wins, they will likely face a re-match with No. 6 Kennard.

That's exactly what coach Garry Davison and the Lady Lions are hoping for.

"These girls have been pushing since last year. Their big motto is, Finish It," Davison said. "Every quarter of every game, we want to finish it.

"We would love to get Kennard again and send them home the way they sent us home. We felt like if we had gotten by them, we would have been in Austin. It looks like we're going to get them the same time this year, and that's who these girls want to play because they feel they owe them one."

That's especially true for Saltillo's three seniors, Johnson, guard Jessica Gilbreath and 6-3 post Stephanie Methe.

"The three seniors are the captains," Davison said. "They've been to the playoffs all four years, so they can help the younger girls with what's expected. Over the four years, they are 106-16. Hopefully we can get 112-16."

A state championship is what the Lady Lions have as their goal. Davison took the 2001 team to the UIL State Tournament, where Saltillo finished as runner-up.

"Our goal is to go to state and finish it - finish what we started," said Methe. "It's going to take teamwork and toughness. We all have that. We have what it takes."

Davison said Johnson, who is being courted by Texas Woman's University, is the team's fulcrum - the player that sets the tone for the others. Her example is mental and physical toughness.

"Winter's probably the best player on our team," he said. "She's aggressive, and the other girls feed off her intensity and her toughness. She's not scared of anything, she's going to compete no matter what."

Methe, meanwhile, is the team's most improved player, Davison explained, and could be the difference for the Lady Lions in the playoffs because of her defense and improved scoring ability. She is going to play at Temple College after graduation.

Then, there is Gilbreath, who is into painting, shopping and theater. But, don't be fooled by the girly-girl veneer. She is the team's toughest on-the-ball defender, the coach said.

"I try to keep my weight back, move my feet, and they're not going to get past me," said Gilbreath. "If they cross it over, I'm going to get it."

That's the kind of intensity that Davison is looking for as the team enters the playoffs. They went through district unbeaten in 14 games, but lost a warm-up contest to Clarksville, ranked No. 14 in Class 2A. Davison said the game was good for the Lady Lions despite the loss.

"I think the Clarksville game was good for us. It was good to see that kind of athletic ability and that kind of intensity," he said. "It was the first time my starters had to play the whole game since before Christmas because just about everything had been decided by the first half.

"We saw that we could compete against that kind of athleticism."

Now, the Lady Lions have to get ready for the pressure of entering the playoffs as the top-ranked team in the state. Johnson said it's no different than past years.

"I told the girls in practice, 'Ya'll always wondered what it felt like to be the No. 1 team in state. This is what it feels like. It's not any different, is it?' " she asked. "They all said, 'No, not really.' "

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