West hangs on for emotional victory

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Heading into the 2009 McDonald's All-American girls' game, the favored East team had the size advantage and the higher-ranked prospects on its roster.

The West players, however, showed why it's not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog as they scrapped, clawed and eventually hung on for a 69-68 victory at the BankUnited Center on the campus of the University of Miami.

Even though the East team was outrebounded and was beaten to the spot on the offensive glass, it still had a chance to send the game into overtime when Kelly Faris (Heritage Christian/Plainfield, Ind.) was fouled by Eliza Pierre (Muir/Pasadena, Calif.) on a 3-point attempt with two seconds remaining and her team trailing, 69-66.

The 5-foot-11 Connecticut recruit calmly canned the first two free throws. West coach Dave Power (Fenwick/Oak Park, Ill.) smartly made a substitution, which delayed Faris' third free throw just enough to disrupt her rhythm. She did not move off the line, kept her form, but her shot was off, and Pierre grabbed the long rebound as the final horn sounded.

"It was difficult coming in, because they had all the big bodies," said co-MVP Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (T.C. Williams/Alexandria, Va.), who paced the victorious West club with her defensive intensity and finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and two steals. "You guys know me, my specialty is defense, that's what I do. We came out and played hard as a team."

Ruffin-Pratt was part of a balanced West attack, as five players scored in double figures and three players -- Taber Spani (Metro Academy/Lee's Summit, Mo.), Christina Marinacci (Foothill/Tustin, Calif.) and DeNesha Stallworth (Pinole Valley, Pinole, Calif.) -- each scored a team-high 11 points.

It looked like the West club might pull away and win without all the theatrics at the end as it took a 67-60 lead after a made free throw by Spani with 1:26 remaining in the game. After that, however, the East made its final push behind the heady play of team leader Skylar Diggins (Washington/South Bend, Ind.).

With 1:18 remaining, Diggins canned a 3-pointer, and 20 seconds later, she came up with a steal and was fouled on a layup to cut the lead to 67-65. She canned the free throw to make it a one-point game and came up with yet another steal to give her team a chance to take the lead. The East turned the ball over, however, and committed two costly turnovers in a 20-second span in the final minute of the game.

Those turnovers seemed to be a microcosm of the game for the East all-stars, as they were able to build a five-point lead, 48-43 -- their largest of the game -- but could not hold off a motivated West club.

"We knew it was going to be tough for both teams," said co-MVP Diggins, who finished with a game-high 18 points while adding five rebounds and three steals. "We [the East] turned this into an amazing game in the final four minutes. We felt like we were in it [the entire game]."

Diggins and 6-foot-4 Kelsey Bone (Dulles/Sugarland, Texas) figured to lead the East unit, as they were the two obvious standouts in practice for the team. Bone and wing Ta'Shauna Rodgers (King's Fork/Suffolk, Va.) were the East's other two double-digit scorers, with 10 points apiece. Bone also blocked three shots as the East club used its size to swat away 17 shots, including five by Joslyn Tinkle (Big Sky/Missoula, Mont.).

The game was nearly even in every other statistical category, except free throws. The West nailed 12-of-15, but the East missed seven of its 18 attempts from the charity stripe.

"We were a small team, but were the quicker team," remarked Tierra Rogers. Despite her slender 5-foot-11 frame, Rogers grabbed eight rebounds, including five on the offensive end in a performance befitting her team's disposition as underdog. "Me and T [Ruffin-Pratt], we are competitive. We go hard and all-out."

During a break in the action at the beginning of the game, Bone, the No. 2-ranked player in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, announced she will attend the University of South Carolina.

"After my family bought into this basketball thing, me and my mother, who I am extremely close to, got to a medium," Bone explained about her recruiting process. "It was a bit of a tug-of-war. I can't please everybody, but I'm happy with my decision. I didn't think staying down in Texas was beneficial for me. I wanted to do something different."

On her big night, it was only fitting that Bone opened up the scoring with a short jumper on a nice feed from Markel Walker (Schenley/Pittsburgh), the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100 No. 4 prospect. Walker then gave the East club a quick 4-0 lead with a putback basket.

With its first unit in the game, which included both Bone and Diggins, it looked like the East unit would be able to get high percentage shots at will. The West unit, however, quickly showed that it had an answer for everything the East could throw at it. Ruffin-Pratt canned the first two baskets for the West, which trailed 5-4 with 15:54 remaining.

The underdog West club then made its first-half push, as Power's club went on a 10-0 run to take a 14-5 lead. The smaller West players used their overall speed advantage to beat the East up the court and convert easy baskets in transition. The East also settled for many long jump shots, which negated its size advantage because of the long caroms the missed 3-pointers created.

Rodgers ended the East's drought with a 3-pointer that made the score 14-8 with 12:38 remaining in the first half. The West kept up its spirited play and eventually stretched its lead to 20-11 with 10:45 remaining in the first half. During that time, the West received strong play from Rogers, Stallworth and Ruffin-Pratt, who made a spectacular save while falling out of bounds to a cutting China Crosby (Manhattan Center/New York), who finished a contested layup to give the West a 22-15 lead.

With a shift change that brought back its first unit at the end of the first half, the East made its own push to get back in the game. With 2:43 left in the first, Jasmine Hassell (Wilson Central/Lebanon, Tenn.) made the highlight move of the night, converting a 360-degree spin-move layup that gave the East its first lead (28-27) since the score read 5-4.

It was evident early in the second half that the game would remain close and competitive. A little too close for comfort, according to Rogers: "I didn't want the game to go into overtime."

Last year in Milwaukee, the duo of Nikki Speed and Brooklyn Pope, who both just completed their freshman seasons at Rutgers University, led the West to a 80-64 victory.

With its one-point win Wednesday night, the West all-stars now lead the all-time series 6-2 since the inception of the girls game in 2002.

Next year's McDonald's All-American festivities will take place in Columbus, Ohio.

Ronnie Flores is a senior editor for ESPNRISE.com.