By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
When the Clever Lady Bluejays needed a big stop, a big rebound or a big shot, they got it on Thursday night.
The fifth-seeded Lady Bluejays held off fourth-seeded Lutheran North of St. Louis 50-48 to advance to the White Division semifinals of the Pink & White Lady Classic on Friday.
“This team’s been together (for a long time),” coach Dan Jones said. “The core of this group was my undefeated junior high team, so we’ve kind of got the same mind now. I feel like this year, they’re an extension of me and I’m an extension of them.
“It’s just a real nice to have players that are that intelligent, so that you can rely on them to do some of the things they need to do.”
And, some of those things on Thursday included changing up zone defenses to try and slow down the Lady Crusaders and their standout senior Madison Buford, who scored a game-high 23 points, and who herself hit some big shots when her team needed her to.
Clever senior and College of the Ozarks signee, Harper Little, picked up a steal and took it coast-to-coast for the go-ahead basket (23-21) with less than two minutes left in the half.
A slow start to the second half by Clever saw Lutheran North go on a 10-1 run for a seven-point lead, but it didn’t last long. Senior Abi Menzies scored six straight points and Little hit two free throws to put Clever back on top 32-31.
“(Menzies has) had moments this year where she has really been super-strong down low… so I thought I’m just going to rely on her right now and see if she can get it done,” Jones said. “We had a great conversation yesterday and she wanted the basketball more, so we gave it to her; got on her back right there and got back in the game.”
Lutheran North took the lead on two free throws by Amaya Earls (35-34). Allie Clevenger, who collected the 1,000th point of her career in the first quarter, gathered a loose ball and hit a basket at the third-quarter buzzer for a 36-35 Clever lead.
The lead changed hands several times in the fourth quarter. Little hit a free throw to put Clever up 45-44 and then came up with a huge block that resulted in a Lutheran North foul, putting Clevenger on the line. Clevenger hit both free throws for a 47-44 Clever lead. Tessa Newman pulled down the rebound on a Lutheran North missed 3-pointer and was fouled. As she stood at the line, the arena was silent as she calmly sank both shots to extend the Lady Bluejays’ lead to 49-44.
Buford hit a driving shot down the lane, followed by two free throws, pulling Lutheran North to within one (49-48).
But a Little rebound and Clevenger free throw provided the final margin – 50-48.
“That comes from girls that want to win,” Jones said. “We’ve put together a really tough schedule this year… and we wanted that, so we can try and play at an elite level, like a Strafford. We know we’re not there yet at this point in the season, and the girls know they can get there. They see room for improvement.
“We got a little bit lucky tonight, luck was on our side a little bit; and maybe a couple of blessings.”
Clever will take on No. 1-seeded Fort Smith, Ark., Northside, a 63-39 winner over Skyline, in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
PINK & WHITE TOURNAMENT
WHITE DIVISION QUARTERFINAL
CLEVER 50, LUTHERAN NORTH 48
LUTHERAN NORTH 15-6-14-13—48
LUTHERAN NORTH – Madison Buford 23, Taleah Dilworth 4, Kaylynn Hayden 8, Jordyn White 5, Amaya Earls 8.
CLEVER – Allie Clevenger 12, Tessa Newman 7, Harper Little 15, Abi Menzies 16.