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Aryanna Watson's buzzer-beater lifts Service girls basketball past Dimond in Region IV championship

Mar. 10—With nine seconds left in the Region IV championship game, standout freshman Aryanna Watson and the rest of the Service High girls basketball team found themselves in an eerily familiar situation.

The Cougars were trailing 2023 Cook Inlet Conference champion Dimond by a narrow margin and were in jeopardy of suffering yet another loss to the Lynx, who were trying to run out the final seconds of regulation and complete a miraculous comeback after being down by double figures entering the fourth quarter.

Service was given a sliver of hope and a chance to pull off a miracle of their own after a backcourt violation called on Dimond gave them the ball back, and Watson proceeded to seize the moment by knocking down a mid-range jumper at the buzzer to secure a 39-38 victory.

"It actually wasn't supposed to be there," she said. "In my head I was like 'I have to make this shot and I have to get the ball' so when I got it, I knew I had to go to hoop and I did it."

The two teams had faced off three times this season prior to Saturday's fourth bout at West High School in the regional finals. Each of their previous matchups went down to the wire and were decided by five or fewer points, a trend that continued in the title game — except this time around, the Cougars were the ones that emerged victorious.

"Our girls came out super determined to win this game," Service head coach Harvey Watson said. "Losing was not an option. We fought through it from the beginning and knew that even when we were up, they were going to make a comeback ... We worked hard, stayed the course, drew up a play at the end and it came through."

Service is the youngest team in the conference and perhaps the entire state with double the amount of freshmen as they have seniors on the team at 6-3. That youth and lack of big-game experience showed itself in all three of their losses to the Lynx during the regular season but they've grown a tremendous amount over the course of the year and would not let history repeat itself with the championship on the line.

"Ever since the first game we played Dimond, we evolved over time and got better," Aryanna said. "We've all been waiting for this moment since the first day of practice and it's a blessing to be here."

The first half of the game was tightly contested as well with neither team ever holding more than a five-point lead but the Cougars remained in control and ahead on the scoreboard, taking a 21-16 lead into halftime.

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Service quickly built its first double-digit lead of the game early in the third quarter and outscored Dimond 13-3 to take a 15-point lead into the final eight minutes with all the momentum on their side but it wouldn't last.

The Lynx locked in and turned it up in the fourth quarter, led by a tenacious effort by senior Maile Wilcox who was held scoreless through the first three quarters of the game but erupted when her team needed a spark to try to mount a comeback.

"She is an amazing player, and I knew she would make that push," Harvey said.

The Adams State University commit recorded 12 of her team's 17 points, including a pair of clutch back-to-back 3-pointers that brought Dimond within four and then one point of tying or taking its first lead since the opening period.

"She's a very talented player and I'm really glad I got to play her in my high school career," said Aryanna, who was named the 2024 Cook Inlet Conference Player of the Year.

A layup from Lynx junior and leading scorer Evan Hamey gave her team the lead back with two and a half minutes left to play but the Cougars didn't fold or wilt under pressure and ultimately prevailed and feel like one of the most dangerous teams heading into the 2024 ASAA 4A state tournament, which will take place next week.

"It was stressful, but I knew in the end, we would get them and that last shot was amazing," Aryanna said. "Teams are going to be scared to play us."

The last time a Cougars girls team won a region title was in 2006, according to Harvey, and none of his starters, including his own daughter were even born. This triumph marked a tremendous milestone for a program that is poised to be one of the top teams for years to come with their gifted young core that appears to already be ahead of schedule.

"This is a great time to be a Cougar," he said. "In previous years, we would've been like 'It's OK to lose' but this year losing wasn't an option."