By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Fordland, Mo. — For the briefest of moments during Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty’s 68-48 victory over Fordland, Piper Francis seemed a bit out of sorts.
The Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty senior entered the game a mere seven points shy of 2,000 for her career.
While Francis and the visiting Lady Eagles looked to move past the milestone as quickly as possible, the offense sputtered a bit with teammates making determined efforts to create shots for their prolific scorer.
Late in the first quarter with four points in the box score, Francis misfired on a pair of rushed 3-pointers.
During a dead-ball reset, the 5-foot-9 SIU-Edwardsville commit gathered herself with a deep breath.
Once play resumed, it was Francis’ turn to create shots for her Liberty teammates.
“I just had to get myself going in a different way than threes,” Francis said. “I did what I had to do.”
After dishing out assists on the next two trips down the court to close out the quarter, Francis got going in the second with a pair of layups to finally move past the milestone. She finished the game with a team-high 19 points.
Presented with the game ball to recognize the occasion, Francis reflected on the moment.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of as a little girl, and it’s finally here,” Francis said. “It’s a big achievement for me.”
Head coach Eli Ernst wasn’t surprised at all with his senior’s quick adjustment once things slowed, offensively.
“To be on the cusp of 2,000 points is a tremendous honor,” Ernst said. “There’s no doubt you want to score, and you want to score as quick as you can and get that underneath you. [Francis] is a great player and a great scorer, but what she’s able to do besides scoring the basketball is what separates good from great.”
Despite having only eight players on the entire roster, Fordland was able to keep pace early on with its counter-punching guard combo of junior Abi Southard and senior Sophie Sparks, who combined for nine of the team’s 11 first-quarter points.
With Liberty’s offense off to a slow start, Fordland took advantage and closed the quarter trailing by a single basket at 13-11.
Prior to the game, Southard was recognized for reaching 1,000 points in her career. Sparks and senior Emily Whiteford are also on pace to reach the 1,000-point milestone this season, according to Fordland head coach Kevin McDaris.
“Abi’s a tremendous scorer,” McDaris said. “She hit that in our tournament last week at home. Sophie will probably be there in three or four games, and Emily’s a few games behind that. It’s nice to have those consistent scorers.”
In the second, Liberty’s transition game finally began paying dividends thanks, in part, to the team’s dominance on the boards.
“When we want to play fast tempo, a lot of what we do is keyed off a big rebound,” Ernst said. “If you don’t rebound, you can’t run.”
With transition driving lanes opening up, senior Trinity Clark paced the Liberty attack with eight of her 14 points in the quarter. Junior Kinley Richards added a pair of 3-pointers to help push the lead to 34-23 at the half.
5-foot-10 junior Kaitlyn King proved to be a dominant presence on the interior, adding 17 points in the paint for the visitors and spearheading the Liberty fast break with timely rebounding.
“Whenever someone shoots it, I always count it as a miss, and I make sure that I block out,” King said. “If I’m not blocked out, I try to get around as hard as I can. With my height, it’s a lot easier to get in front of people or to jump around them.”
Ernst was pleased with King’s performance.
“We applaud what [King] is doing but, honestly, it’s what we expect from her this year,” Ernst said. “I looked at her late in the game and said, ‘I know you’re tired, but you’ve got to go grab every rebound,’”
In the second half, Liberty’s rebounding, transition game and depth began to take its toll on the shorthanded home squad.
While Fordland was able to make a few runs early in the second half, the home Lady Eagles were unable to close the gap.
“We just never seemed like we could get anything to go steady,” McDaris said. “We’d play good for a couple minutes, make a little run and then we kind of got stagnant a little bit. We’ve got some young kids, and this is the first big-time game they’ve got to play in, so they’re kind of learning.”
A 16-10 edge in the fourth quarter pushed the Liberty lead back to 20 en route to a 68-48 final.
Depth, according to Ernst, played a significant factor in the win.
“We knew they were a little short benched,” Ernst said. “We thought that might be an advantage for us. We carry a lot on our bench knowing that we’re a heavy senior team, and we want those younger kids to get some exposure to what we’re doing this year.”
Despite the loss, McDaris was pleased with his team’s effort against a tough, early-season challenge.
“I thought we did a pretty good job, defensively, but we just didn’t do a very good job rebounding,” McDaris said. “We gave them a lot of offensive rebounds, and I thought that was the difference in the first half. They got a lot of easy baskets off of offensive put-backs.”
Southard and Sparks each scored 21 points for Fordland to lead all scorers.
Up next for Liberty (5-0) is a home game against St. James on Friday, Dec. 7. Fordland (3-1) travels to Blue Eye on Thursday, Dec. 6.
Varsity Final: MV-BT/Liberty – 79, Fordland – 48
MV-BT/Liberty 13 21 18 16 — 68
Fordland 11 12 15 10 — 48
MV-BT/Liberty scoring: Piper Francis – 19, Kaitlyn King – 17, Trinity Clark – 14, Tayler Randolph – 8, Kinley Richards – 6, Kamryn Gastineau – 4
Fordland scoring: Abi Southard – 21, Sophie Sparks – 21, Kenzie Branson – 6