NATCHITOCHES — Jamie Gibson was determined to finish the job this time around.
Gibson, Walker High School’s do-everything senior forward, scored the Wildcats’ final six points as they rallied to defeat Natchitoches Central 50-46 in a Class 5A girls quarterfinal game Thursday night.
With the win, Walker (30-5) advances to the LHSAA’s Girls Top 28 for the first time since 2009. Walker plays the winner of a Saturday quarterfinal between New Iberia and West Monroe at 8 p.m. Thursday at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles.
Gibson, who hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in the first quarter, broke a 20-minute scoring drought when she made a steal and went coast to coast for a layup to tie it at 46-46 with 1:18 left in the game.
Then, Gibson put Walker ahead for good just 29 seconds later when she posted up on the right block, spun into the lane and knocked down a left-handed jumper. Gibson iced the game with two free throws with 12 seconds remaining as the second-seeded Wildcats shook off last season’s last-second loss to Destrehan in the quarterfinals.
Third-year Walker coach Korey Arnold said his team was “devastated” after last year’s loss to Destrehan, and the Lady Wildcats were determined not to let it happen again.
“They were hungry. They wanted to prove a point,” Arnold said. “They wanted to prove they could win on the road, and they did it.”
The two teams slugged it out in a physical, intense contest that featured only five lead changes as Walker held the advantage early before NCHS (24-10) grabbed it early in the third quarter and held onto it until Gibson’s late heroics.
Gibson made four 3-pointers, a long jumper and a layup at the first-quarter buzzer as the Wildcats built an 18-10 lead over the first eight minutes. The lead ballooned to 10 just over a minute into the second quarter on Gibson’s final basket before her long scoring drought as the Chiefs started to chip away at the lead.
NCHS outscored the Lady Wildcats 12-2 over the next 6:38 and tied the game at 22-22, but two free throws gave Walker a two-point halftime lead.
Senior guard Princess Cohen scored seven of her game-high 20 points in the third quarter as NCHS built a four-point lead on four occasions and even stretched it to six at 41-35 late in the quarter on a Nunu Payton layup from a Cohen assist.
The two teams traded baskets — and turnovers — in the fourth quarter, as Walker twice cut the lead to one point on a basket by senior Keeona Brown and a layup by senior guard Kacie Fountain. Brown, who played much of the fourth quarter with four fouls finished with 13 points for Walker.
Gibson said the Chiefs started pressuring her more after her first-quarter explosion, but she never panicked and trusted her teammates.
“I wasn’t really worried about it because I knew my teammates would step up,” she said. “I’m so proud of my team.”
Arnold recalled the heartbreak of last season’s loss —“I had to get a mop to wipe up the tears from the floor,” he said — and how it has driven the Lady Wildcats ever since. They wore bracelets with the No. 2.9 on them to commemorate the number of seconds remaining in the game when Destrehan hit its game-winning basket, and they adopted the motto, “Why not us?”
They answered that question emphatically Thursday night in a gym that Arnold called “the toughest high school environment in the state.”
“I wasn’t going to force it because we’ve got other kids who are capable,” Arnold said of Gibson’s drought, during which she attempted just four shots.
“Kacie can step up, Bailey (Stears) can step up, Keonna can step up. Everybody did their job.”