ELWOOD — An often forgettable season for the Madison-Grant girls basketball team produced one of the program's most remarkable postseason moments Wednesday.
Bethani Herniak hit a free throw with 7.8 seconds remaining to provide the winning margin, and the Argylls erased a 22-point halftime deficit to stun Alexandria 43-42 in the first round of Class 2A sectional play.
"There's nobody else on our team I would want there," first-year Madison-Grant coach Chaz Barker said of Herniak's presence at the free-throw line in the final seconds. "She's a senior, and she's been through the highs and lows of varsity basketball. There's nothing she hasn't seen."
Except, perhaps, for the second half against the Tigers.
Madison-Grant (3-17) entered the postseason on a six-game losing streak, with its most recent victory coming on Jan. 14. The Argylls lost to this very Alexandria team 66-57 just five days earlier, and things began to look very bleak for the rematch midway through the first quarter.
Trailing 7-5, the Tigers (5-16) exploded for a 25-1 run that gave them a commanding 30-8 halftime lead. Alexandria's pressure defense harassed Madison-Grant into 18 turnovers, including 12 in the second quarter when the Argylls were held without a field goal.
Madison-Grant shot just 3-of-16 overall, while the Tigers used efficient ball movement to put six players into the scoring column.
"Honestly, that first half of basketball, that's as well as we can play," Alexandria coach Tina Bolte said.
The second half fell into the opposite end of the spectrum.
Barker looked at the long faces surrounding him in the locker room at intermission and issued a challenge.
"If you don't believe we can come back from this, stay in the locker room," he said. "We want to have girls out there that believe in what we're doing."
The quick speech seemed to work.
"Luckily, everybody followed me out," Barker said.
It didn't take long for belief to become reality.
The Argylls responded with a 16-1 run to start the second half, and Meagan Mooney tied the game at 34-34 with 4:42 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers got a short jumper from Macie Cox and consecutive baskets from Desirae Litchfield and Morgan Oliver to regain a six-point lead.
Cheyanne Hasty drove the length of the court for Madison-Grant to cut the deficit to 40-36 with 2:29 remaining, but when Emeleigh Stanley's 3-pointer rimmed out on the next possession it looked as though Alexandria would weather the storm.
Instead the Tigers, who shot 4-for-21 in the second half, failed to make a field goal the rest of the way.
"The majority of our offense in the first half was stemming from how well we played on defense," Bolte said. "That's what really hurt us in the third quarter."
Kelsey Crisp scored Alexandria's final points on a pair of free throws with 1:48 remaining.
Cierra Liddick, who led Madison-Grant with 13 points and 15 rebounds, scored inside to make it 42-38 seconds later and cut the deficit to two with an offensive rebound and putback on the next possession.
Following a timeout, Mooney stole the inbounds pass and made a layup to tie the game for the first time since the opening period. The Argylls got another steal moments later but missed two chances to take the lead with 24 seconds left.
After Alexandria failed to convert its next possession, Herniak was fouled underneath the basket with 7.8 seconds remaining. The all-state track and field star made the first free throw but missed the second.
Stanley was called for an over-the-back violation attempting to get the rebound, and Alexandria's Cox went to the free-throw line for a 1-and-1. She missed the front end, and Liddick pulled down one final rebound.
Her deep outlet pass to Mooney drained the final seconds off the clock and set off the Argylls' celebration.
Stanley finished with 11 points for Madison-Grant, hitting a 3-pointer to start each half, and Mooney scored all 10 of her points in the second half.
Oliver led Alexandria with 12 points, and Courtney Skinner finished with 11.
In the aftermath, Barker attempted to explain how the Argylls rallied.
"First, you have to be a positive influence to the girls," he said. "You have to keep believing in what you're doing and find a way."