St. Mary's Tomyree Thompson goes up for a shot over Riverside's Danniecia Nora

ALEXANDRIA — Kierslynn Lawless often gets fussed at by her coach for jumping to try to block shots.

That wasn't the case Wednesday.

Longtime Cougars' coach Keith Haywood didn't mind her effort one bit.

Lawless' blocked shot in the final seconds preserved No. 8 St. Mary's hard-fought 41-39 victory over No. 5 Riverside Academy in the Division III semifinals of the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Girls Basketball Tournament at Rapides Coliseum.

"I just decided to jump and get my hands up and use my instincts," Lawless said.

The victory sends St. Mary's to the championship game for the first time in 20 years.

St. Mary's, whose only other title came in 1998 when Shondra Johnson starred for the Cougars, will play rival St. Katharine Drexel Prep at noon Saturday in an all-New Orleans area showdown.

It's been a long time coming for Haywood, the school's head coach since 1989.

"After 20 years, I feel young again," Haywood said. "I'm going to look in the mirror and see if my hair turned back black. But I do feel young again. It's great."

Making it even more special, it was career win No. 650 for Haywood.

The win avenged a 42-41 loss to the Rebels in a district game in the regular season.

Neither coach was surprised that this was another close one.

"Every time we play Riverside, it comes down to the last shot," Haywood said.

Riverside's Kevin Dizer, who guided the Rebels (17-11) to their first trip to the semifinals, agreed.

"Hats off to St. Mary's," Dizer said. "They closed it out. We've played them probably six times the past two years and all those games have been decided by one or two points. I'm real happy for coach Haywood in being able to get his team back to where they used to be."

Kia Batiste scored a team-high 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Cougars, whose 16-18 record includes a 2-1 record on a trip to California.

"It's amazing," Batiste said. "I've been with this team since ninth grade and to see where we have come from feels great."

Batiste scored 11 of her points in the first half that ended with the score tied 26-26.

Things slowed down in the second half.

The teams combined for five points in the third quarter, all from the free-throw line.

Neither team scored a field goal in the entire third quarter.

Part of it was by design by Haywood, who decided to slow the game down after having two players pick up three fouls in the first half.

"We had to shorten the game and take the air out of the ball some," she said.

Riverside went 0-for-9 in the quarter and St. Mary's went 0-for-6.

The first field goal of the half didn't come until 6:37 remained in the fourth quarter when Riverside's Danniecia Nora scored in the paint to make it a 32-30 game. St. Mary's first field goal of the half came a few seconds later when freshman Tomyree Thompson hit a pull-up jumper in the lane.

Both team struggled from the free-throw line as well, particularly down the stretch. Riverside made 4 of 11 free throws in the fourth, while St. Mary's made just 7 of 15.

"We turned the ball over too much," Haywood said. "We missed too many free throws. But we were able to get the win, and it's all about moving on."

Bria Neal scored 15 points to go with her six rebounds and four assists to lead Riverside. Nora came off the bench and scored 12 points.

Thompson and Dionne Atkins scored seven points each for St. Mary's, whose play at times made Haywood sit on the bench away from his players.

"I was hyperventilating," Haywood said jokingly. "That's why I went and sat where I sat because I didn't want them to know that I was having some problems with what they were doing. They did some things that were uncharacteristic of them, but I guess it was the moment. But I'm just glad we made it through."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.