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Smith Center wins, will play for title

By KLINT SPILLER
kspiller@dailynews.net

MANHATTAN — As the final buzzer sounded Friday evening, Smith Center senior Sydney Benoit let a giant smile creep across her face as she hugged senior teammate Blair McNary.

Her team had just advanced to the title game of the Class 2A state girls' basketball tournament for the first time since 2002 and now has a shot at the first state title in school history.

Smith Center (23-2) did it by winning 62-59 against Sterling at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan. The Black Bears dropped to 21-4.

"It just feels amazing, because we've been working really hard for this all year," Benoit said. "This is what we wanted, so it feels awesome."

That smile was the first time she expressed much emotion after reentering the game in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, she was all
business.

Benoit helped stop a 9-3 Sterling run midway through the fourth and then scored nine of Smith Center's final 11 points at the free-throw line to seal the victory.

"She is our floor general," said Smith Center head coach Nick Linn.
Benoit got her fourth foul with 25 seconds left to go in the third quarter.

At the time, Smith Center led 47-36, but with Benoit off the court, Sterling stormed back and narrowed the lead to 50-45 with 5:49 to go.

The Black Bears seemed to have all the momentum, and then Benoit returned with 5:16 to go and took control.

She took over the primary ball handling duties like normal, but she also grabbed three rebounds and scored nine points on 9-of-12 shooting from the free-throw line.

"I knew we had to all go out there and do our best, so I think that's what I tried to do," Benoit said.

Benoit finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds and tied the 2A state tournament record for free throws made in a game, converting 15 of 21 from the foul line.

"Her shots weren't there as much as normal, 6 of 19, but if you really watch, she is a gamer," Linn said. "That is what we had to have tonight. At the end of that game, we had to have that."

Heading into the game, Linn said he thought Sterling was the team to beat. His club will face 23-2 Jefferson County North in Saturday's title game.

"Jefferson North is awesome," Linn said. "They are a really good team, and they have a great player, an all-state first teamer. But as far as athleticism, Sterling would be hard to beat. I thought tonight if there would have been one more quarter I don't know if we would have done it. But we gave 32 minutes of hard effort, and that's what these kids have done all year long."

Sterling made it difficult for Smith Center at times.

The Black Bears forced 13 turnovers and contained the Lady Red to 34.6 percent shooting and 12.5 percent from the 3-point line.

Junior guard Aubree Nuest led Sterling with 20 points, and senior Danielle Dowell added 10.

However, the combo of Benoit, junior Cobie Decker and Smith Center's supporting cast was tough to stop.

Decker scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds.

"(Decker) has improved maybe more than anybody from the beginning of the year to the end of the year," Linn said. "She couldn't throw it in the ocean at the beginning of the year. She never played varsity before, and she is just such a threat for us on the inside."

Smith Center senior guard Trenna Cox added nine points and six rebounds, and senior guard Alexis Ryan contributed eight points.

Smith Center actually trailed with three minutes left in the second quarter, but the Lady Red went on a run while Sterling suffered a cold streak, scoring 16 points before Sterling finally ended its 4-minute, 13-second scoring drought. But by that time, Smith Center led 41-30.

Benoit's absence gave Sterling an opportunity to catch up, but she took care of business in the final half of the fourth quarter to ensure the rally didn't stop them from reaching the title game.

After the game as the coaches and players headed to the locker room, Linn stopped to hug Benoit.

"The frustrating moments we've had over the last two years, three years of not getting in and losing in the sub-state finals, just to get in and have a chance to do this," Linn said. "That's what the hug was all about."