Denham Springs missed the playoffs in girls basketball last season, a development hard to stomach for a program that had reached the state semifinals each of the previous two.
But the Yellow Jackets didn’t stay away for long.
In surviving a frantic rally by No. 4 seed Barbe on Thursday night at Hornsby Gym, fifth-seeded Denham Springs punched its way back to the Girls Top 28 tournament with a 58-53 victory in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
The Yellow Jackets will meet No. 1 seed Mandeville, a 48-42 winner over New Iberia in double overtime, in the semifinals next week at the University Center in Hammond.
“It feels great to get there, especially with this group that didn’t even get to the playoffs last year,” Denham Springs coach Shelly LaPrarie said of reaching the semis for the third time in four seasons.
“We’re going to buckle down and really get focused, try to bring our ‘A’ game and see what happens.”
Until the heart-stopping final two-plus minutes Thursday, the anticipated slugfest between two teams that entered with 58 combined wins looked more like a mismatch.
Denham (29-3) took a 13-point lead into halftime and extended that cushion to as much as 16 points early in the third quarter. The lead was still 10 points with 2:30 left.
But just before the raucous home crowd could start to celebrate, Barbe (30-3) used an avalanche of last-ditch adrenaline to reel off six straight points.
A string of Denham turnovers against the Bucs’ full-court press were converted into easy baskets.
Suddenly, Denham led only 51-47 with 1:18 to play.
The lead would shrink to as little as 56-53 with nine seconds to go.
“I’m going to tell you right now, that’s the hardest team I’ve ever played against to try and put them away,” LaPrarie said. “They just kept coming back at us and coming back at us.”
In the end, Denham Springs sealed its trip to Hammond by going 9-of-10 from the free throw line in the final 1:25. Point guard Christina Canale was 6-of-6 from the foul line during that stretch.
“I’m so proud of my team we made it this far,” said Canale, who finished with 11 points. “I’m just glad we worked together as a team to accomplish this goal.”
Senior guard Lexi McMorris led all scorers with 19 points, with sophomore forward Maia Robinson adding 14.
Ashlyn Poole led three Barbe players in double figures with 14 points. Kristen Daniels had 13 points and Aeriyl Mass scored 12.
There weren’t many dry eyes as the Bucs filed out of the visitors locker room.
“This group’s special,” Barbe coach Kelly Durio said. “First team to win a district championship in our school’s history and first team to win a playoff game in our school’s history. Just the way they battled back there at the end, it’s hard to take knowing that if we had played the first half like that it would have been a different outcome.”
In stopping Barbe’s 16-game winning streak, Denham won for the 22nd time in 23 games.
Barbe scored 42 of its 53 points after going 5-for-21 from the field in the first half.