KUNA -- Kayla Jensen relished her assignment in the waning moments of the Firth Cougars' opening round game of the Class 2A girls state tournament: hug the ball and don't move.
Jensen snatched a loose ball in the final three seconds and held on to help Firth preserve a 44-43 victory over New Plymouth.
Bailey Nelson made a free throw with 6.6 seconds remaining to give Firth a one-point lead and set up a dramatic finish.
New Plymouth (16-5) heaved an inbounds pass to half court and immediately passed the ball near the post. But Firth's defense swarmed around the ball, forcing the turnover to secure the victory.
"There was nothing like that," said Jensen, who led the Cougars with 14 points. "I just covered the ball up and listened for the buzzer."
Firth, making its first tournament appearance since 2010, will face the winner of Melba and Grangeville.
After trailing for most of the game, Jensen sparked Firth's most important run in the fourth quarter.
With New Plymouth staked to a 38-32 lead, Jensen reeled off seven points in less than two minutes to give Firth a 39-38 advantage.
Clinging to a 43-41, Firth watched its lead evaporate New Plymouth's Kaylee Garrick muscled in a layup to knot the score at 43 with 20 seconds remaining.
But Nelson's free throw proved to be the difference after New Plymouth failed to get off a shot at the end. Nelson finished the game with eight points and 12 rebounds, while Brittana Spencer added 11 for Firth.
"I think it came down to our girls just wanting it more at the end," Firth coach Sharla Cook said. "We had a poor night at the free throw line and struggled against their half-court press, but we were able to get it done when we needed to."
Trailing 12-7 after the first quarter, Firth found its rhythm on offense in the second quarter, utilizing its height advantage in the post to go on a 10-1 run. Spencer sparked Firth with a pair of layups, including the conversion of three-point play, while Jacee Jensen drilled a 3-pointer.
Firth held a 20-19 late in the first half, but watched it disappear behind a 7-3 run by New Plymouth as the Pilgrims took a 26-23 lead at the break.
The third quarter was a slug fest, dominated again by the defenses.
Firth surged ahead 27-26 on a couple of quick baskets by Rachel Schiess and Kayla Jensen, but New Plymouth responded. The Pilgrims ground out a couple of inside baskets from Kaylee Forsberg and Garrick on their way to taking a 36-32 lead into the final quarter.
FIRTH 44, NEW PLYMOUTH 43
New Plymouth 12 14 10 7—43
Firth 7 16 9 12—44
NEW PLYMOUTH (43) — Kaylee Forsberg 8, Brittany Verigan 4, Josie Thurman 3, Kylee Garrick 13, Courtney Butler 8, Taylor Frates 7. FG: 17. FT: 8-12. 3-pointers: 1 (Garrick). Total fouls: 19. Fouled out: Thurman.
FIRTH (44) — Brittana Spencer 11, Kayla Jensen 14, Bailey Nelson 8, Jacee Jensen 5, Natalie Jolley 2, Rachel Schiess 4. FG: 18. FT: 7-24. 3-pointers: 1 (J. Jensen). Total fouls: 14. Fouled out: none.