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A Cougar Comeback for the Ages

Down 21-2, Oakton girls rally to defeat Mount Vernon in region semifinals.

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Oakton High sophomore Zora Stephenson (34) contributed six points in the Cougars’ incredible comeback win over Mount Vernon last week. With the win, the Cougars advanced to the region finals and also clinched a spot in the upcoming state AAA playoffs.

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Oakton, shown here following its Concorde District finals win over Westfield, has yet to lose a game this season. The Cougars are set to face T.C. Williams in the region title game.

It’s hard to believe her when Oakton freshman Caroline Coyer says she never panicked during her team’s near-miraculous come-from-behind 47-39 win over Mount Vernon in the Northern Region semifinals last Friday night at Robinson.

Not when the undefeated Cougars were down a whopping 21-2 to start the game and shot just 5 of 23 from the field in the first half, trailing by 12 at halftime.

Then again, Coyer was the lone Oakton player to score a field goal in the game’s first 14 minutes and followed that up by calmly sinking several clutch free throws down the stretch en route to a game and career-high 22 points.

"You have to keep your cool because if one person freaks out then it’s kind of a chain reaction," Coyer said of her team’s mind-set after starting the game so poorly. The victory means the Cougars qualify for the state tournament.

While Coyer was the main cog in the comeback, Oakton (27-0) did get some unfortunate help courtesy of a knee injury to Mount Vernon’s star player, junior Tracey King (22 points), with more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Cougars outscored the Majors 14-2 to close the contest as King sat on the bench for the remainder of the game.

Mount Vernon coach Terry Henderson was also upset with the officiating after the Majors picked up 18 second-half fouls compared to just four whistles on the Cougars.

But afterwards, all Oakton coach Fred Preister could rave about was the moxie of his young squad, who also relied on Coyer’s twin sister, freshman Katherine (nine points) and sophomore Zora Stephenson (six points) to eke out a win and a place in this weekend’s state tournament.

"I thought we’d get past the jitters early and they’d start dropping. But they just didn’t," said Preister, who before the game was named the Northern Region coach of the year. "There was a lot of fear in everybody’s eyes, probably mine, too. We just showed a lot of guts."

<b>MANY IN THE REGION</b> had questioned Oakton’s unblemished credentials heading into the regional tournament since the Cougars hadn’t faced many of the other top teams from the Northern Region during the regular season. Those doubters looked to be right as Oakton struggled against a ferocious fullcourt trap by Mount Vernon (24-4) early.

On the sideline, as his team floundered, Preister emphasized that all the Cougars had to do was get the deficit down to 10 by halftime. Oakton trailed by 12 at the break. Then he asked his team to trim the margin to six by the end of the third quarter. The score was 32-27 heading into the fourth quarter.

In the end, Coyer and crew steadily chipped away at what appeared to be an insurmountable lead and in the process proved its undefeated season was no fluke.

"I guess you could say that because we haven’t lost a game that we haven’t had our reality check, but then again, we know how to win," said Coyer. "They were hitting their shots, so we figured that our time would come. … We knew we could come back and we just kept hanging on that hope."

Oakton was supposed to play T.C. Williams in the Northern Region finals Monday night, but that game was postponed due to inclement weather. It will now occur after the Connection’s deadline. The state tournament begins this weekend, with Oakton playing at Robinson if it defeats T.C. Williams. If the Cougars lose, they will head to the Siegel Center in Richmond for their first-round state playoff game.