The Vikings are back like they never left.
After a two week break, the Fort Walton Beach girls basketball team returned to the hardwood Thursday night and staved off a late Walton run with a run of its own to top the Braves 65-45 at the Fort.
After scoring 14 points combined in the third quarter both squads erupted in the fourth. Walton’s dynamic senior, Haleigh Graham put up 11 points on her own in the final frame, scoring on a trio triples to cut an 11-point deficit down to seven.
The Vikings (11-4 overall) though had an answer for each of Graham’s scores, sophomore Tamia Cooper earning high praise from Viking coach Holly McDaniel.
“I think in the second half a big difference in the game was the free throws,” McDaniel said.” Tamia Cooper, she went 9-for-9 in the entire game, perfect from the free-throw line, 6-for-6 in the fourth quarter. In close games when it’s tight, that’s the difference maker, getting to the free-throw line, making your free throws and taking advantage of being in the double bonus.”
Cooper attacked the basket relentlessly during the final frame Thursday, which in turn slowed Graham’s torrid pace. Of Cooper’s team-high 15 points, nine came at the line, Fort Walton Beach shooting an impressive 10-of-13 from the stripe in the fourth.
Graham led all scorers with 28 points, but the defensive combo of Cooper and freshman Samantha Sherer forced her into difficult shots all night, which often turned into defensive rebounds and fastbreak opportunities at the other end.
“(Graham’s) a great shooter, but they consistently made her work hard to have to get a shot off,” McDaniel said. “Over the course of four quarters, wearing somebody down, that’s really what we’re trying to do especially against really good players.”
Walton (7-6) and Fort Walton Beach had already faced off once this season before Thursday’s game, a narrow 45-44 Viking victory in Braves territory. Since that victory, McDaniel said she has “found a group of five or six that have really gelled and made good runs together.”
With its key contributors in place, the Vikings seem ready to continue their run during the second half of their season.
“I think the thing I like the most about them is that it takes all of them,” McDaniel said. “On any given night, it could be anybody. And they always surprise us. Somebody different always steps up and has a big game, and they really do care about each other.
“They take care of each other. They root for each other. I think the team chemistry’s really good.”
Up next, Walton will host Freeport at 6:45 p.m. Friday, while Fort Walton Beach has a date with the Eagles at 5:45 p.m. Saturday in Niceville.