By Dana Harding
Billings, MO – Good things are afoot in the Southwest Central League.
In a battle of improving programs, Sparta raced out to an early lead over Billings, then held off a fourth-quarter comeback to secure a 60-49 victory.
Neither team surpassed the three-win total last season, and Billings was forced to cancel its 2014 campaign due to an unfortunate player shortage.
That said, Monday’s clash showcased two rapidly-improving programs, both of whom have already met or exceeded last season’s win total this early in the season.
The Lady Trojans jumped on the scoreboard first with a 10-2 first-quarter run, kicked off by back-to-back 3-pointers from Breann Anderson and Liz Yeager.
Yeager, in particular, turned in a big night. Playing at both the point and 2-guard spots, the 5’2” junior repeatedly hit big shots for the Lady Trojans, finishing the game with a team-high 15 points on four 3-pointers.
Sparta head coach Josh Loveland was quick to praise his playmaker.
“Liz had a great game,” Loveland said. “She’s really out of position. I force her to play a lot of point guard, but we’re better when she gets off of the ball where we can run some stuff for her, set some screens and get her open looks. She can light it up, and she can hit them from deep; she really can.”
While Sparta were able to find offensive success on the evening when it mattered most, its defensive game plan proved to be just as vital.
Much of Billings’ improvement this season has been keyed by a pair of rapidly-developing sophomores in Taylor Painter and Elizabeth Gearing.
Painter’s ability to find driving lanes has caused opponents fits this season, and Gearing is quickly becoming one of the SWCL’s better finishers.
Loveland knew defensive real estate would be at a premium for the Lady Trojans.
“We thought that was the key,” Loveland said. “If we could close down those driving lanes and keep [Painter] out of the lane, we were going to gamble with them hitting shots from the outside.”
Sparta’s defensive effort helped limit Painter’s scoring to a single basket; however, the 5’3” guard began finding open teammates and helped key a monster night from Gearing, who finished with a career-high 29 points.
“As a result of a 2-3, they’re going to hit some of those outside shots,” Loveland said. “It’s just going to happen. They did hit some shots from the outside, but I feel like our game plan worked. We didn’t close out real well on [Gearing], though. She had a really big night.”
Nowhere was Gearing’s big night more apparent than during the Lady Wildcats’ furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Down 51-29 with just over 6:00 remaining, Gearing and Lexy VanZandt (yet another sophomore) went to work for the Lady Wildcats. The pair finished with 12 and 6 points, respectively, in the final frame and cut the Sparta lead to 54-44 with 2:42 on the clock.
Billings head coach Randy Towe was pleased with the Lady Wildcats’ resilient nature and pointed to Gearing’s huge second-half burst as a result.
“She had a tough time, early, shooting the ball,” Towe said of Gearing. “That’s what I like about her, and that’s what we want her to do. I don’t care if you miss ten in a row … shoot the ball. You’re not going to start hitting if you quit shooting, and she’s really good about that. She just keeps plugging away.”
Unfortunately, the push came too late in the contest to completely turn the tide, and Billings fell by the 60-49 final.
Despite the loss, Towe was quick to praise his young squad’s continued improvement on the season.
“I think it really sunk home after this game,” Towe said. “I also think if we would have had four more minutes of game time, I think we would have won the game. I think the momentum was going that way.”
Gearing’s 29 led all scorers in the contest. For the Lady Trojans, Yeager was joined in double figures by Tiffany Lafferty’s 12 and Anderson’s 10.
Sparta (3 – 9) returns to play in the final game of its own tournament Wednesday, Jan. 11, taking on Bradleyville in the fifth-place game. Billings (4-7) travels to Clever on Thursday, Jan 12, for another SWCL showdown.
Varsity final: Sparta – 60, Billings – 49
Sparta 17 19 8 16 — 60
Billings 7 12 7 23 — 49
Sparta scoring: Liz Yeager – 15, Tiffany Lafferty – 12, Breann Anderson – 10, Genesis McTeer – 6, Maggie Brown – 5, Kayla Smith – 5, Alyssa Diers – 4, Elyssa Tate – 2
Billings scoring: Elizabeth Gearing – 29, Lexy VanZandt – 8, Taylor Painter – 6, Kerri Culver – 4, Grace Seager – 2