By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Kaitlyn Burson’s putback to beat the buzzer Friday night put the Willard Lady Tigers in their first Pink & White Lady Classic championship game since 1984 with a 60-59 White Division victory over the Nixa Lady Eagles at Drury University’s O’Reilly Family Event Center.
And, the screams from the Willard locker room proved what getting back to the title game means to the program.
“It was definitely a team effort,” said Burson, who shared scoring honors with Megan Mahan with 10 points apiece. “I couldn’t have done it without everybody. It feels amazing. We really came together and worked very hard together. We didn’t play for one, we played for all.”
But the game didn’t start out so amazing for Willard.
Nixa closed out the first quarter with a 7-1 run and ended the half with a 27-16 lead, sparked by Emily Edwards’ nine points.
“Give Nixa a lot of credit,” Willard coach JJ Adamson said. “Coach (Jennifer) Perryman and her staff had their kids ready to play, and their defensive effort was better than our offensive output in that first half. So, we took a little different approach at halftime.
“We went in, we were as confident as we could be. We told them, ‘here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to slowly chip this thing away in the third quarter and cause them to call a couple of timeouts. You’re finally going to take the lead and then you’re going to be able to stretch it out.’
“The only part we did not foreshadow was not scoring until the last bucket. I think at 2:42, the only bucket we hit was the last one. We left that part out, but everything else came true.”
Willard did chip away at Nixa’s lead in the third quarter, but it seemed every time the Lady Tigers would get close, the Lady Eagles would hit a big shot, or shots, and keep Willard at bay.
With Nixa leading 41-33 late in the third, Willard’s Mahan hit two free throws, Ariana Patillo followed with two free throws of her own before Hannah Bird found her on the baseline for a 3-pointer to pull the Lady Tigers within one (41-40).
It was all Willard to open the fourth quarter with Addy Adamson and Liz Drennan hitting back-to-back 3s. Bird got the ball to Josie Sanders down low and Sanders converted to give the Lady Tigers a 48-41 advantage.
It seemed to be a reversal of fortune as Nixa tried to chip away at Willard’s lead in the fourth, but Willard would answer with a big shot, or shots, of its own. Nixa cut the lead to four, but back-to-back 3s from Nona Adamson and Mahan pushed the Lady Tigers’ lead to 10 (56-46).
And the chess match began.
It was Nixa’s turn to make a run. The Lady Eagles used an 8-0 run to cut the lead to 56-54. Addy Adamson hit one of two free throws for Willard (57-54).
Gabby Nielsen and Tori Yantis connected on a high-low play to pull Nixa within a point (57-56). Willard called time out with 41.9 seconds to play, Mahan was fouled and hit one of two free throws (58-56).
Nielsen was fouled and hit both of her free throws to tie the game at 58 with 25 seconds to go.
A Nielsen steal gave Nixa the ball back and Yantis was fouled. She hit the first of her two free throws to give Nixa its first lead (59-58) since the end of the third quarter.
With the length of the floor to go, Mahan dribbled the ball up-court, passed it to Liz Drennan, who put up a baseline shot that fell short. But, Burson was there to gather it in and score to beat the buzzer.
“It’s a very tough decision for a coach whether to call a timeout or to let it play out, especially when it’s not a tie ballgame,” coach Adamson said. “To be honest, we were just fortunate. But, sometimes, you make your own luck. Sometimes, you go chase a rebound, you anticipate a miss and it just treats you right; the ball ends up in your hands in a perfect situation and you have an opportunity to do something really special.”
Nixa coach Jennifer Perryman said it would have been easy for her team to give up when it trailed by 10, but she was proud of how the Lady Eagles fought.
“We didn’t do some things early on, and those ultimately caught us at the end of the game,” Perryman said, “but most people remember that last play. It’s never the last play. We gave up way too many uncontested 3s and way too many putbacks.
“I’m proud of our fight. I’m proud of our kids. You could tell by their reaction in the locker room. Those kids wanted to win, and (Willard) just made a few more plays that won them the game. JJ’s doing an incredible job with those kids, and they’ve really bought in. They deserved to win tonight.”
Willard will take on Fort Smith, Ark., Northside, a 55-40 winner over Clever, in the White Division championship at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Nixa will play Clever for third place at 5:30 p.m.
PINK & WHITE TOURNAMENT
WHITE DIVISION SEMIFINAL
WILLARD 60, NIXA 59
WILLARD – Josie Sanders 8, Addy Adamson 4, Megan Mahan 10, Liz Drennan 8, Hannah Bird 9, Nona Adamson 6, Kaitlyn Burson 10, Ariana Patillo 5.
NIXA – Gabby Nielsen 11, Lakin Copeland 12, Emily Edwards 9, Tori Yantis 18, Paige Sportsman 4, Raegan Thomason 3, Ali Kamies 2.