BLOOMINGTON – Ask El Paso Gridley girls’ head basketball coach Jeff Sinn and you get the feeling seeing his team seeded 9th prior to the 109th Heart Of Illinois Conference/McLean County Tournament was short-changing his team before they had an opportunity to prove their skills.

The Titans came into this tournament seeking to win the girls’ tourney’s crown but ended up carting home a third place award after beating sixth seed Fisher, 38-34, Saturday afternoon at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus.

EPG (10-12 after this game) jumped out to a fast 5-0 lead thanks to back-to-back baskets, a trey and a deuce, from senior guard Addison Benedict. Fisher responded with back-to-back shots from junior guard Morgan Coile and freshman guard Kallie Evans, reducing the Titans’ lead, 5-4, with 1:50 left in the quarter.

Fisher (11-11 following this game) owned a 7-5 lead as the opening quarter ended, courtesy of a free throw by senior guard Kylee Bishop and a deuce from senior forward Brianna Keeton, allowing the Bunnies to carry that lead into the second quarter.

EPG found themselves needing to respond to a pair of three-point shots to start the second quarter. Those came from Bunnies senior guard Daneigh Burk and junior forward Brianna Sommer, giving Fisher a 10-9 advantage with 5:35 left in the quarter. But Hood’s second trey, coming at the 4:23 mark, allowed Fisher the advantage of a four-point lead, 13-9. A pair of free throws by fouled sophomore guard Jordyn Cannon allowed EPG to close in on the Bunnies’ lead, 13-11, before a deuce from Hood help extend her team’s lead, 15-11.

At this point, Sinn called time out with 2:35 remaining until halftime, after which the Titans went on a 6-0 tear, starting with a Benedict firing a deuce and a trey, and a jumper from junior forward Rebecca Orns, allowing the Titans to jump over the Bunnies going into halftime, 18-15.

Third quarter scoring was back and forth, starting with senior guard Kylee Bishop’s deuce which opened the period, reducing EPG’s lead to one, 18-17. Orns responded with a deuce to give the Titans a 20-17 advantage. Senior forward Ashley Smith’s deuce at the 4:43 mark helped close the gap the Bunnies faced, trailing by one, 20-19, but Orns’ basket with 3:37 left put EPG up, 22-19. Bunnies junior forward Leah McCoy’s jumper sliced EPG’s lead to one, 22-21, with 3:20 left. But Cannon’s next basket extended her team’s lead, 24-21, with 2:55 left in the quarter.

Hood’s basket with 43.5 seconds in the third again closed the gap EPG tried to leave Fisher in, 24-23, before EPG sophomore guard Michaela Kelly’s deuce with 17.5 seconds left renewed the Titans’ three-point lead, 26-23. The quarter closed on Bunnies senior forward Ashley Smith’s bucket and foul shot attempt, which she missed, allowing EPG to hold on to a single-digit lead, 26-25, entering the fourth quarter.

Fisher retook the lead briefly, 27-26, thanks to a jumper from senior forward Brianna Keeton. It was replied to with one by EPG sophomore forward Devyn Hinthorne putting EPG up, 28-27. A basket by senior forward Ashley Smith allowed the Bunnies to hop in front briefly, 29-28. EPG stepped back in the lead, 30-29 with 5:41 left in the contest, starting a 6-0 run for the Titans which included a deuce and two free throws from Olivia Tipler. Keeton’s basket ended the streak, and pulled the Bunnies within three, 34-31 with 3:11 left in the game.

Two free throws by Kelly, having been fouled by Hood, pushed EPG’s lead up by five, 36-31 with 1:47 left, in the middle of which, Bunnies head coach Ken Ingold called time, but the tactic failed. A basket by Evans trimmed the Spartans’ lead back down to two, 36-34, prompting Bunnies head coach Ken Ingold to another call time out 30.2 seconds left.

Bishop fouled Cannon, putting EPG back on the free throw line with 29.1 seconds remaining, where she sank two baskets, putting the Titans up, 38-34. Following an EPG timeout, Cannon was fouled again, this time by McCoy, with 13.7 seconds left. Cannon missed the first of two shots. From there, Fisher inbounded the ball, getting it to Bishop, who launched a shot from just beyond half-court as the buzzer sounded, only to see the ball smack the backboard and fall to the floor.

Benedict led all scorers and EPG in double-figures with 14 points. Hood pocketed 10 for Fisher in leading her team’s effort. Ingold was not available for comment following the contest. Fisher holds a 12-11 record after this contest.

“We took home third place and starting from being 9th seed, that’s pretty darn good,” EPG’s Sinn admitted following the contest. “The girls didn’t let them distract them. We know we can play and we’re a tough team and we showed that during this tournament.” He added his team has shown improvement in their play offensively and defensively since the season began in November.

He added placing third after their seeding in the county tournament was a good thing and credited being in the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Classic last month as “good preparation for this.” The Titans finished the Classic with a 2-2 mark.

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