By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE, Mo. – Every time the West Plains girls mounted a run, Strafford had an answer.
The third-seeded Zizzers even led the top-seeded Indians for a spell in the second quarter.
But Strafford pulled away with a 22-3 run stretching into the third quarter and went on to beat West Plains 58-36 on Saturday in the championship game of the Carthage Invitational girls basketball tournament.
“That’s the resilience of our kids,” Strafford coach Steve Frank said. “I guess you could say we’re a veteran team now. Our kids have been through it now, most of them for three years. When they get in a tight situation they respond well and they don’t get rattled when things get a little tight.”
Frank’s Indians, winners of 85-straight games and ranked first in Missouri Class 3, jumped out to an 8-2 lead before West Plains rallied to tie the game at 10 behind some hot-shooting by sophomore MacKenzie Brunson.
A Brunson three pointer to open the second quarter gave West Plains a 13-10 lead, and a Brunson free throw a minute later made it a 14-13 game.
Trailing by five later in the quarter, West Plains senior Hailey Meeks sank a three pointer to make it a 19-17 game. Less than a minute later, Strafford senior Hayley Frank – a Missouri commit – picked up her third foul.
West Plains missed the front end of two-straight 1-and-1 trips to the free throw line, however, and Strafford scored eight points in the final 90 seconds of the half. When Strafford freshman Emma Compton picked up a steal at half court and scored on a layup in the final minute, the Indians suddenly led by 10, 27-17.
“We missed both front ends of one-and-one,” West Plains coach Scott Womack said. “We were kind of in foul trouble so I tried to rest my three starters the last minute and a half and they went on that 8-0 run so we’re down 27-17 at half and I thought that took a lot of the air out of us. If we could have made a free throw there – of course we turned it over a couple times. If we could have gone into the half around even, I felt we’d have a little momentum the second half. They came out the third quarter and continued that run to kind of put the game away.”
West Plains missed two more free throws to open the second half, Hayley Frank drained a three pointer, Strafford junior Logan Jones got a steal and a layup and then Hayley Frank scored and was fouled. Her free throw made it a 35-17 game with 4:40 left in the third quarter.
“In the first quarter we got things rolling our way and then Hayley got her second foul there and when she came out of the game, our energy level really dipped and we weren’t able to get some things going,” Frank said. “They got back in the game and it became a grind-out game at that point.
“In the second quarter when we got our kids back in there, we were able to speed the game up and get a little more transition,” he said. “Our defense stepped up a little bit more in the second quarter, too. That’s where our run came was on the defensive end, not necessarily the offensive end.”
Strafford led 43-26 after three quarters.
West Plains’ Brunson made two free throws and added a field goal early in the fourth. Senior Morgan Mahan scored at the 5:44 mark to bring West Plains back within striking distance at 45-32.
Strafford answered with a 13-0 run that included four points apiece from senior Madison Chittenden and Compton.
“When they made that run back at us, our kids gathered and once again on the defensive end they created some steals and we got out in transition again off our defense,” Frank said. “That’s what opened the game back up again.”
“Right now we just don’t have enough girls making enough shots,” Womack said. “We’re counting a lot on MacKenzie Brunson to score for us. We have other girls who can score but we’ve got to get them a little more aggressive. Turnovers really hurt us tonight and Strafford does such a good job of turning you over. We had ourselves for 26 turnovers. That’s way too many.”
Strafford was led in scoring by Kayley Frank’s 20 points. Compton and senior Kayley Frank each scored eight, Chittenden scored seven, Jones scored six, and senior Kyndall Compton, junior Taylor Dormann and junior Mica Chadwell each scored three.
Brunson led West Plains with 20 points. Junior Cass Cunningham scored seven, senior Morgan Mahan scored four, Meeks scored three and freshman Ashton Judd had two.
Strafford, 3-0, will host Republic on Dec. 6. West Plains, 3-1, will entertain Logan-Rogersville on Dec. 10.
Strafford and West Plains were well-represented on the all-tournament team. Both Kayley and Hayley Frank were named to the team, as were Brunson and Mahan. Others named to the team were Carthage sophomore Hailey Fullerton and Har-Ber sophomore Kania Starks.