In an almost heavyweight boxing match-like atmosphere and game, where the two fighters are nip-and-tuck the whole way and go the distance, the Rhea County High School (RCHS) Lady Eagle basketball team delivered the 55-52 knockout punch on Thursday night over the Cookeville High School Lady Cavaliers in the District 6-AAA tournament semifinal game.

The win for the Lady Eagles (23-4) placed them in Monday night’s championship game with the White County High School Lady Warriors, who defeated the Stone Memorial High School Lady Panthers 77-72 in overtime in Thursday’s second semifinal game. The Rhea win also qualified them to host a first- round region game.

Rhea’s Mallory Hampton had a game-high 38 points, which marked her second highest game total of her career, and her highest for this season. Hampton’s highest point total in a game is 39, which was in her sophomore season. Hampton now has 2,082 career points at RCHS.

Hampton paced the Lady Eagles in the first quarter with eight of the team’s 10 points, as Cookeville dropped in eight points. Fellow senior, Haley Cameron, charted a basket for Rhea, and the Lady Eagles held a 10-8 lead headed to the second.

The Lady Cavaliers outscored the Lady Eagles 17-12 in the second period and took a 25-22 lead to the locker room. As the teams battled it out, with numerous lead changes and ties in the contest, Rhea lost its lead with 3:21 left in the second and wouldn’t see it again until 19 seconds remaining in the game. The biggest lead of the game for the Lady Eagles was four points, and the largest lead for Cookeville was eight points.

The Lady Cavaliers came out of the halftime determined to put this one away, as they went up 28-22 in the first minute of the third quarter with 3-pointer. The Lady Eagles regrouped and cut the game back to three points, but Cookeville hit back-to-back threes and went up 35-27 with 3:58 left in the third period. Rhea head coach, Tracy Vest, called a timeout to calm his team.

Out of the timeout, the Lady Eagles went on an 8-0 run and tied the game at 35 apiece with 2:59 in the third. During the Rhea run, Cameron grabbed a rebound and put it back up for two and was fouled in the process and made her free throw. Hampton hit a layup and Maddie Taylor hit nothing but the bottom of the net on a long-range 3-pointer that tied the game. After three quarters, the Lady Cavaliers led 42-39.

Cookeville went up five points early in the fourth, but Emma Gentry drained a 3-pointer off the assist from Maddie Smith at the 3:49 mark. Hampton tied the game at 46-46 with 3:23 remaining in the game on two free throws.

The Lady Cavaliers hit another trey and went up 49-46 with 2:42 on the clock, but Hampton quickly answered with her own trey and tied the game at 2:29. The two teams were tied again at 51, when Hampton sank two free throws with 19.8 showing on the clock to put Rhea ahead 53-51. Cookeville went to the charity stripe and was only able to hit one free toss and trailed Rhea 53-52. On the miss, Smith secured a key rebound for the Lady Eagles and was quickly fouled.

With 3.5 seconds left in the game. Smith hit both free throws for the Lady Eagles to help seal the victory.

Coach Vest lauded his team’s effort in the win, especially since several on the team have been battling illness all week.

“With all the sickness we’ve had and the kids not feeling good, what I told them after the ballgame is, they survived,” explained Vest. “They found a way to pull it out and survived. Basically, that’s what tournament play is­­—you survive.

We didn’t play our best basketball until that fourth quarter, and I think we played with a sense of urgency,” continued Vest. “I think our girls started thinking, ‘hey, we can’t get beat,’ and I think that’s when they stepped it up on both sides of the floor, especially that last three minutes. Sometimes it’s great when you have four seniors who have been there, they’ve been in tournaments before, and they understand the quality of it.”

RHEA (55) – Hampton 38, Gentry 7, Cameron 5, Taylor 3, Smith 2

COOKEVILLE (52) – K.K. Graves 14, Julie Dunaway 11, Jordan Gillies 11, Katie Dunaway 8, Emma Webb 4, Liv Shipman 3, Bailey Gillies 1

Lady Eagle notes – Free throws played a big part of the game, as the Lady Eagles went 16-of-19 from the line and Cookeville went 13-of-17. Hampton was 9-of-10, Gentry was 4-of-4, Smith was 2-of-2, Cameron was 1-of-1 and Macy Welch was 0-of-2. The Lady Eagles will play White County Monday, Feb. 24, at 8:30 p.m. EST, for the District 6-AAA championship, at White County High School.