By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Bolivar, Mo. — The Christmas holiday is in the rear-view mirror, yet January continues to be full of surprises for Bolivar.
The Lady Liberators downed Hillcrest in the opening round of the 25th Gary Keeling Memorial Tournament; however, just getting to the game presented a slew of challenges for Bolivar head coach Darin Archer.
While winter weather always plays a role this time of year, the recent cold snap prompted multiple cancellations and schedule changes for the host school’s annual tournament. As late as Wednesday, in fact, both schools had been preparing for different opponents.
As if that wasn’t enough, a flu bug knocked Bolivar freshman Lexi Berry, the team’s starting point guard, out of competition.
Oh, and one more thing — did we mention Bolivar hadn’t even played in an actual game since its matchup with Hollister on Jan. 4?
With so much chaos in the air, it wasn’t a complete surprise to see both teams get off to a slow start in Thursday’s matchup.
“It’s been chaotic, but as a coach you try not to let things you can’t control take over your team,” Archer said. “We’ve had a lot of curve balls thrown at us in the last couple weeks, but I was pleased with the way our girls responded.”
After opening up with a pair of quick buckets from senior Michelle Gabani, Bolivar led 14-6 after the first quarter. Things stalled a bit in the second, as points became extremely hard to come by for both teams.
The Lady Liberators took a 20-8 lead into the half.
“Practice isn’t like a game,” Gabani said. “So it’s hard to come out and play full speed. Yesterday at practice, we prepared for Branson, not Hillcrest. In the locker room, we had to make a game plan up, and we just kind of went with that.”
In the third, Bolivar’s defense set the early tone and opened up the transition game. A 10-3 Lady Liberator run keyed by Gabani and senior Reaghan Lesh helped stretch the lead a bit and get things rolling for the host team.
“I think everybody got excited because everyone was chipping in points,” Gabani said. “Our defense was really good, and that helped a lot. We were a little off, but that’s just from not playing in a while.”
While Gabani’s 12 points led all scorers, it was her additional responsibilities as de facto point guard that drew quick praise from Archer.
“[Michelle] had to change roles, obviously, and kind of revert back to being our point guard like she was last year,” Archer said. “She’s going to do what she has to do in order to give our team a chance to win. Tonight, she didn’t really shoot as much as she normally does, but she was setting up other players; she’s always been our leader on the floor. When you have all these curve balls thrown at you, it’s good to have someone like Michelle on your side as a calming influence.”
As for the sluggish start in the first half, Archer praised his team for keeping focus and making the necessary adjustments to persevere in the second half.
“The biggest thing was we let our defense create some offense for us,” Archer said. “We really struggled there in the first quarter and at points in the first half, but our defense and rebounding were consistent throughout the game, and that’s key. You’re going to have off nights shooting, but if your defense and rebounding remain consistent, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.”
For Hillcrest head coach Justin Gerald, progress continues to be made for a group that certainly doesn’t play like one still in search of its first win of the season.
Gerald pointed to several miscues and too many second-chance scoring opportunities allowed as key factors in the loss, but promises better things are to come for this group.
“I think we have a really great group of girls, and they really enjoy basketball,” Gerald said. “It’s turning that corner and not just being a participant in basketball, it’s being a competitor. I think we’re about to turn that corner with just a couple things here and there, and we’re going to be just fine.”
Both Bolivar (10-4) and Hillcrest (0-12) are set to continue play in the tournament; however, the weather disruptions still have the actual date and times to be determined.
Varsity Final: Bolivar – 46, Hillcrest – 24
Bolivar 14 06 14 12 — 46
Hillcrest 06 02 05 11 — 24
Bolivar scoring: Michelle Gabani – 12, Logan Fullerton – 9, Reaghan Lesh – 6, Hannah Newcomb – 6, Rheagan Hancock – 5, Taylor Dial – 5
Hillcrest scoring: Jasmyn Johnson – 8, Madison Schaefferkoetter – 7, Sarah Hale – 5, Kelly Tran – 2, Lydia Conlon – 2