By Denise Tucker (OzarksSportsZone.com)
ASH GROVE – With 51.1 seconds left on the clock and the championship game of the Ash Grove Lady Pirate Classic tied at 31, Walnut Grove sophomore Faith Gilkey stepped to the free-throw line for a one-and-one opportunity.
She sank the first one to give the Lady Tigers their first lead of the game Friday night, then calmly sank the second for a 33-31 advantage over the Miller Lady Cardinals.
But, Miller still had a chance.
After a Walnut Grove timeout and 14 seconds to go, the Lady Cardinals almost picked up a steal, but the ball slipped through a player’s legs and into the hands of Gilkey. Miller was forced to foul, and Gilkey hit the second of her two free throws to give the Lady Tigers a 34-31 lead.
Again, Miller had a chance. With three-quarters of the court to go in 11.5 seconds, the Lady Cardinals got the ball on their end, but passed up some open looks for a chance to tie. Walnut Grove’s Lauren Johnson stole the ball to seal the victory and tournament title for the Lady Tigers, who improved to 3-0.
“I know that everything we do goes off our defense and how hard we play,” Gilkey said. “So, I thought if we just come out and (get physical) in the fourth quarter – get up, get some steals – that it would get them kind of nervous and not want to handle the ball so we could score in transition, instead of having to slow down and run set plays.”
Miller, which starts four freshmen and a senior, gave Walnut Grove all it could handle, taking a 17-13 lead at halftime and extending that to an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter. Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry called a timeout and told his team to “quit being scared.”
“We just couldn’t get going, offensively,” Henry said. “Credit Miller, No. 1. Their defense was good, they had a great game plan, but we just couldn’t get going, couldn’t hit shots and didn’t really execute the way we wanted to.
“But I’m awfully proud of the way our kids responded, and I think that’s bigger than anything – especially defensively.”
And, Gilkey was that key defensively in the fourth quarter, picking up several steals and providing the spark needed on offense, scoring 10 of her game-high 16 points.
“That’s what she does,” Henry said. “She’s a fighter. She hates to lose. That’s what I told her at the end of the third quarter, and she took it to heart. They all just played exceptionally hard on the defensive end, and that’s what we want to be known for; it’s what we do.”
Miller head coach Hannah Wilkerson said she wasn’t comfortable when her Lady Cardinals had that 11-point lead in the third quarter, even though they had led since early in the first quarter (4-2).
“Walnut Grove is a really good team. They know how to win, that’s why they have the tradition that they do. They know how to win ballgames,” Wilkerson said. “We had too many turnovers at the end and at crucial times, and right under their basket.
“Our girls got a little bit rattled once we lost some momentum. We started out great, but it takes all four quarters to win a ballgame, especially against a team like Walnut Grove. But, we learn from this and we move on.”
Wilkerson was proud of her young team’s effort this early in the season, led Friday night by freshman Claudia Hadlock’s 11 points.
“They’re a great group,” Wilkerson said. “They’re the most competitive girls I know and that’s why they’re fun to coach. But I told them after the game that I’m never going to use their age as an excuse because they’ve played enough ball that they know that’s not how we do things. They’re only going to get better.”
Walnut Grove is young, as well, starting three sophomores and two seniors, so the tournament title was a big boost for the young squad.
“That was a huge win for us,” Gilkey said. “They’re a really good team. It was really kind of an eye-opener for us to see what we can do defensively, if we step up and play hard every game like that.”
ASH GROVE TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP
WALNUT GROVE 34, MILLER 31
MILLER – 12-5-10-4—31
WALNUT GROVE – 4-9-9-12—34
MILLER (3-1) – Ashten Kingsley 7, Claudia Hadlock 11, Kaylee Helton 3, Bethany Gulick 5, Payten Richardson 2, Jessica Epps 3.
WALNUT GROVE (3-0) – Makayla McVay 7, Grace McPhail 2, Myranda McVay 3, Faith Gilkey 16, Lauren Johnson 6.
Third place – Marshfield 62, Ash Grove 34
Fifth place – Stockton 25, Aurora 16