Strafford girls heading to first Final Four in program history

First, the lights went out at the O’Reilly Family Events Center on Saturday evening.

Then, Strafford freshman Hayley Frank shot lights-out as the Lady Indians advanced to their first Class 3 state semifinal in school history, with a 50-40 quarterfinal victory over St. James at Drury University.

The Drury campus lost electricity at the start of the second quarter, and power was out for eight minutes (a quarter) before being rescued by a generator. Things were touch-and-go, as administrators and officials scrambled to come up with a contingency plan, should power be lost again. Fortunately, for the near-capacity crowd, the game(s) could go on.

But that was only the beginning of the excitement.

With seconds remaining in the second quarter, Frank heaved a full-court, baseball-throw of a shot that hit nothing but net at the buzzer to give Strafford a four-point lead (21-17) going into halftime.

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO OF THE SHOT

“We don’t practice that one very often,” Hayley Frank joked. “One time, Kayley (Frank) and I were in the gym and we went through two racks of balls shooting that shot, and we made one of them, when we were just messing around.”

But a half-court shot wouldn’t be out of the question.

“It’s kind of funny…,” Strafford coach Steve Frank said, “we do a shooting drill in practice, and the winner of the two teams (has) to hit a half-court shot. So, we shoot half-court shots almost every day. And, it’s funny that it finally happened.”

That basket turned a one-point lead into a four-point advantage for Strafford, after St. James junior Devin Fuhring hit a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left to pull the Lady Tigers within a point (18-17).

“It was definitely a momentum-booster,” Coach Frank said. “We kind of had our back against the wall there. They had made a run on us… so that shot gave us a little breathing room.”

CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS OF THE GAME

Strafford, which improved to 28-3, went on an 8-2 run to open the second half, pushing its lead to 10 points (29-19) at the 4:41 mark. But St. James hung around and pulled within seven points (38-31) on a Savanna Riccetti 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer.

“We didn’t catch many breaks,” St. James coach Terry Wells said. “We didn’t hit some open shots early to get us in the flow of the game. And, I thought we waited a little too long to get urgent.”

After St. James put on its full-court press, Devin Fuhring was fouled on a runner down the lane. The basket was good and Fuhring completed the conventional three-point play, pulling St. James as close as it would get down the stretch (43-38).

Strafford put the ball in the capable hands of Hayley Frank and Abby Oliver, forcing St. James to foul and send the Lady Indians to the free-throw line.

“Hayley is shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line, and Abby (Oliver) is shooting 85 percent,” Coach Frank said. “So, if you can put the ball in those two hands, it’s really nice. But, I think we’ve got four kids on our team that are shooting over 80 percent from the free-throw line. I feel like, when we get down the stretch like that, we’re pretty confident about having to go to the free-throw line.”

The Lady Indians hit 10-of-14 free throws in the fourth quarter to keep St. James (23-7) at bay, and keep their historical run going.

“Before the game, I had several people tell me, ‘Your kids don’t even look nervous,’ ” Coach Frank said. “And I think that’s the big thing… I think they live for moments like this. That’s why I feel pretty good about our next step. I feel like they’re going to go in there and not just be happy to be there. They’re going to go in there and get the job done.”

And, for a team with one senior starter, the Lady Indians are up for the challenge of vying for a state title.

“It’s an unreal feeling,” said Hayley Frank, who scored a game-high 19 points. “It’s what we’ve worked for, and it kind of makes it all worth it; to know that we’ve accomplished our goal. We set out to do it all season; every day when we came into work, that was what we were trying to accomplish.”

Strafford will face St. Pius X, a 58-27 quarterfinal winner over Boonville, at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.

STRAFFORD 50, ST. JAMES 40
Class 3 quarterfinal

ST. JAMES – 7-10-14-9—40
STRAFFORD – 12-9-17-12—50

ST. JAMES (23-7) – Devin Fuhring 18, Shauna Rinehart 14, Leslie Perona 3, Savanna Riccetti 3, Kenzie Guese 2.
STRAFFORD (28-3) – Abby Oliver 13, Hayley Frank 19, Kayley Frank 6, Logan Eden 5, Kaylee Larimer 5, Zoey Mullings 2.

Up next: Strafford vs. St. Pius X, Class 3 semifinal, 1:40 p.m. Thursday, Mizzou Arena, Columbia