In December, Ardmore lost to Del City by 18 points in the Millwood Invitational.

That was many moons ago. Since that early-season loss, Ardmore has turned this campaign into the closest thing to a throwback the girls' program has seen in a while.

"We played them earlier in the year — our fourth, fifth game of the year," Ardmore coach Kevin Kelly said. "They've been playing really well of late, getting some confidence."

On Thursday, the Tigers (11-13) will get a second chance at Del City, this time in a win-or-go-home scenario at the Class 5A West area tournament. The winner of that game will play Saturday against the loser of Shawnee-Piedmont for a spot in the state tournament.

"State tournament" was a phrase unfamiliar to Tiger tongues in November. Ardmore started this year without sophomore post Faithlyn Piggee — lost for the season after breaking her femur in a car accident in September. Add to that a rotation filled with mostly inexperienced sophomores and freshmen, and Kelly, in his first season as head coach, had a challenge on his hands.

Challenges came early in the scheduled, too, with Ardmore opening the season with tough tournaments at Carl Albert and Millwood. The Tigers came out of those games 3-3, with valuable lessoned learned in losses to 5A contenders Carl Albert and Del City.

"We've improved a lot since that game (against Carl Albert)," Ardmore freshman Kevi Davis said. "We were very nervous because we heard how they were. We don't let that talk get to us anymore.

"We went to their tourney ... got beat by 30. They came here and we played with more belief in ourselves, more courage, more teamwork, and we took 20 points off their board."

Can those lessons equate to a win on Thursday to keep Ardmore's season alive? If the Tigers are to win, they'll also have to take the 5A regional championship loss to No. 2 Deer Creek as a teaching tool.

In Saturday's contest, Ardmore lost 61-35, with Kelly saying that the attitudes dictated the outcome. Davis agreed, saying the Tigers have to work together to win Thursday.

"We worked good Thursday (against Northwest Classen) together, then Saturday we weren't very focused," Davis said.

Despite its record, Del City (8-13) isn't far off from the caliber of Carl Albert and Deer Creek. The Eagles have close losses to Carl Albert, 3A's Millwood and powerful 6A schools on their resume.

Kelly said that in the first game against Del City, the Eagles shot 65 percent from the floor.

"When they're shooting the ball well, they can compete with anybody," Kelly said. "The game is going to be won on the defensive end — who can stop who, then who can shoot a higher percentage and make free throws.

"I think it's going to come down to rebounding and free throws against this group. As long as we do those two things well, we give ourselves a chance to win this game."

A win would be another unlikely step in a season of surprise for Ardmore. Despite the success this year, Kelly said he's not satisfied with how far the Tigers have progressed in one season — from one win to 11.

A 10-win improvement is nothing to scoff at, but he and his girls aren't settling — win or lose against Del City.

"We really want to make it to state this year and change the way they look at the girls team," freshman forward Kerra Day said. "Our excitement level is up and we're ready to play."

Erik K. Horne