By Nolan Epstein/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Things continued to heat up in the COC-Large Division on Monday night as the Branson Lady Pirates (20-4, 4-2) grabbed a big 54-51 victory against Ozark (14-8, 4-2) on the road.
After a strenuous first quarter of play that saw a talented Lady Tigers team trading punches with the road squad, Branson buckled down on defense just enough the rest of the way to come away with a win that ultimately put the Lady Pirates into a tie for second place with Ozark in the COC-Large.
“We’ve kind of been pointing to this game knowing that it was going to mean a whole lot,” said Branson assistant Joe Poor, who was designated by head coach Kip Bough to talk to the media following the win. “They came out and kind of hit us in the mouth early, but we responded.”
Coming into the contest with just three regular-season games remaining on the slate, Branson was patiently waiting for a signature moment that would help carry them to a crucial ‘W’ late in the year.
That moment came precisely at the end of the first quarter when junior guard Gracie Jaeger banked home a half-court buzzer-beater – tying the game at 15 and turning the tide of the next 24 minutes.
“That was a game-changer,” said junior Lauren Garrison, who collected 16 points on the night. “Her hitting that shot was a big momentum boost for our team going into the second quarter. That was amazing.”
For Jaeger, the 40-footer was sweet vindication – considering that the 5-foot-7 junior took a pair of shots from beyond the arc in the early going, but came up empty on both of them.
“My first though was that it was just really justice,” Poor said. “She got robbed on a couple of shots, so she gets a little luck for one to go down.”
After holding a 22-19 advantage at halftime, Branson put together a 13-6 run to begin the second half – giving the Lady Pirates a ten-point lead at the third quarter’s 2:26 mark. That edge would shrink to one point on two occasions early in the fourth, but Kip Bough’s club dug deep and received several key stops on defense in the final minutes to keep its grip on the lead.
“Towards the end, we started getting a couple of steals and run-outs, so I think our defense was really solid tonight,” Garrison added. “I think that’s one thing that helped boost us at the end.”
Senior Amanda Kearney, who reached the 2,000-point plateau in a win against Republic just one week ago, finished with 17 points to once again lead the way for her squad. Despite scoring just six points in the first half thanks to a tough Ozark defense, the Harding University commit settled in over the final 16 minutes and found her way to the basket.
“She draws so much attention everywhere she goes,” Poor said of Kearney. “I thought every girl from Ozark that guarded her did a great job. They rotated at least three different players on her, which is what we’re starting to see because people are finding out they can’t chase her all night.”
The Lady Tigers were led in scoring by freshman Madi Braden (18), junior Macey Putt (16) and senior Mikayla Putt (13).
With both teams sitting just behind one-loss Republic and Carl Junction in the COC, Branson and Ozark will look to take care of business to finish the regular season. The Lady Pirates will host Carthage (Feb. 17) and Willard (Feb. 20), while the Lady Tigers end their slate by traveling to Neosho (Feb. 16) and hosting Republic (Feb. 20).
Branson – 15 7 16 16– 54
Ozark – 15 4 14 18 – 51
Branson – Amanda Kearney 17, Lauren Garrison 16, Terra Utz-Depriest 9, Gracie Jaeger 6, Karis Goodwin 3, Tori O’Dell 3
Ozark – Madi Braden 18, Macey Putt 16, Mikayla Putt 13, Annie Scheer 3, Morgan Doyle 1