CHARLOTTESVILLE — Their double-digit lead all but vanished late in the fourth quarter, but the Eastern Hancock Royals never lost control.
Up by 17 points during the early part of the second half, the Royals battled with foul trouble through the final 16 minutes, which visiting Blue River used to cut the deficit to four points 44-40. Yet, it wasn’t enough to derail Eastern Hancock en route to a 52-43 win.
“After halftime whenever we have a big lead, coach tells us not to get complacent and we have to keep pushing. We didn’t do the best job of that tonight, but we didn’t freak out,” Eastern Hancock senior guard Bailey Allen said. “We have a lot of young girls in a varsity setting this season, so that can be scary for some of them, but I thought they handled it well.”
Where the younger Royals couldn’t, the upperclassmen stepped up, including Allen, who finished with nine points and seven rebounds. Junior guard Haley Best had six assists and four points, all coming from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter with the game in doubt.
Freshman Chloe O’Neal had 10 points and seven rebounds, while senior Libby Durham finished with eight points.
Jenna Smith, a 5-foot-9 junior forward, led the Royals with a double-double, dropping in 12 points and hauling in 14 rebounds.
“Jenna is one of those girls who is a beast on the court, but she’s the sweetest girl. It’s hard sometimes to get her to be as aggressive as we need her, but she played amazing tonight,” Allen said.
Smith set the tone for the Royals (10-5), who improved to 4-2 in the Mid-Eastern Conference standings with the win over Blue River (8-4, 4-3 MEC).
She grabbed 10 rebounds in the first half and had eight points while keeping the Vikings off the defensive glass.
Her 10th point in the third quarter off an assist by Best put the Royals ahead 27-10. Smith’s bucket capped a 17-0 run that stretched from the second quarter.
“It’s no surprise to see her do that, but it’s also so quiet. She’s so steady throughout the game that you don’t realize she’s doing it until you look back at the stats,” Eastern Hancock head coach Shari Doud remarked on Smith’s game. “She is a person we have to have on the floor, and she’s going to have some nights where she sees 32 minutes. We’re real pleased with where her confidence level is right now.”
The only thing that slowed Smith was foul issues with the Royals whistled for 13 in the second half, including six in the third quarter. With Smith on the bench, the Vikings bounced back from a scoreless second quarter with 33 second-half points.
“Their pressure is designed to make you take hurried shots, so since they want you to, you shouldn’t, but we did,” Doud said. “They didn’t have to play defense for long. Unfortunately, that stretch, that style went on for too long.”
Attacking the post and drawing contact, the Vikings attempted 19 foul shots in the second half, converting 17. Haley Foster was 9 of 11 from the charity stripe, leading Blue River with a game-high 24 points.
The Royals responded by going 9 of 11 from the foul line in the fourth after shooting 6 of 13 from the field in the third to never lose hold of their lead.
“They responded in the last four minutes to pull away there, but in the stretch where we let them back in the game, we let them get in the paint and to the free-throw line. And they hit a good clip of their free throws,” Doud said. “I don’t even remember them missing a free throw.”
The victory stretched Eastern Hancock’s winning streak to three straight and seven in their last eight. To open the season, the Royals were 3-4, but they continue to improve as the season nearly enters its final month.
“We’re still building. We started off a little slow, but we have a young team and we’re just trying to get the younger players used to the setting,” Allen said. “I think they are fitting in nicely, and I definitely think we’ll reach our potential when we need it.”
The Royals are off until Dec. 27 when they travel to MEC foe Monroe Central.