By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield, Mo. — After battling for three and a half quarters Monday night at Kickapoo — a stretch featuring 17 lead changes — West Plains found itself in need of one final push.
With 90 seconds remaining and her team nursing a 60-57 lead, Sophomore Mackenzie Brunson answered the bell.
Brunson scored the final 7 points of the night for the Lady Zizzers — 11 in the final quarter — to help seal a 67-62 victory.
Her closing run included a 5-for-6 performance from the free throw line.
“I just knew I had to make these,” Brunson said of the late-game free throws. “There was a lot of pressure, but we practice them all the time in practice, and I just knew we had to make them to win.”
West Plains head coach Scott Womack praised Brunson’s clutch play during the game’s final moments.
The 5-foot-7 guard finished with a game-high 25 points.
“Mackenzie was just phenomenal tonight on both ends of the floor,” Womack said. “I think we were down one going into the fourth, and she made two key steals and hit some big shots for us there and some free throws. She’s got a little toughness in her, but it was a team effort all the way around.”
West Plains entered the contest facing a considerable size advantage to its Class 5 opponent.
Blessed with size to burn, the Lady Chiefs rotation features a quartet of six-footers and seven players in the 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2 range.
Womack knew Kickapoo’s size would pose a challenge and his team would have to be both efficient and effective on the evening.
“I knew it would take a while for our girls to adjust,” Womack said. “You can’t simulate their size and their speed and quickness. I just really thought our girls did a good job of settling down, making the right passes and not rushing themselves.”
The teams battled back and forth throughout the first half, with neither able to seize momentum in the contest.
With the score tied 33-33 at the half, Womack felt his team had the advantage, despite giving up a considerable number rebounds and second-chance opportunities to the taller Kickapoo squad.
In particular, 5-foot-11 Indya Green caused consistent problems for the Lady Zizzers down low.
The sophomore forward finished the contest with 17 points to lead Kickapoo.
“I was really pleased at halftime with the way we took care of the ball on the offensive end,” Womack said. “The problem was, we gave them 18 offensive boards on the defensive end, and that really hurt us.”
While Kickapoo’s interior dominance continued early on in the second half, West Plains began extending possessions as the game wore on with second-chance opportunities of its own.
“I thought we did a better job of being a little bit more physical the second half and going for those offensive boards,” Womack said “We just kept fighting and had a lot of heart out there.”
With senior Morgan Mahan representing the tallest Lady Zizzer on the roster at only 5-foot-9, Womack attributed his team’s late-game success on the boards to technique and desire.
“We were just trying to body them a little bit, but instead of jumping straight up, trying to get them off to where they were having to come over the top,” Womacks said. “If you’re straight up with them, they’re going to outjump you and get the board, so we were just trying to be a little bit more physical.”
The back-and-forth struggle continued throughout the second half.
Kickapoo entered the fourth quarter with a 47-46 lead; however, the Lady Zizzers jumped out to a 5-0 run on baskets from Mahan and Brunson.
The Lady Chiefs quickly answered with a 5-0 run of their own from junior Leah Fredrick and sophomore Chloe Merced.
West Plains was finally able to sustain a momentum swing midway through the quarter.
With the score tied 54-54, a free throw from senior Hailey Meeks finally put the Lady Zizzers up for good.
“I’m just proud of my girls,” Womack said. “They knocked down shots when they were open and stepped up and made free throws when they had to. We really got some good stops there at the end when we needed to and really played well the last three minutes.”
Brunson was joined in double figures for West Plains (10-7) by Mahan and Meeks, with 15 and 12 points, respectively.
After the game, Brunson was quick to credit her teammates for stepping up and playing together when it mattered most in the tough, Ozark Conference battle.
“I think we just had more heart in the fourth quarter than they did,” Brunson said. “[The win] definitely puts us in the driver’s seat, and it just gives us more confidence as a team.”
Kickapoo head coach Jim Pendergrass, attributed his team’s inability to consistently limit West Plains’ scoring opportunities proved as a key difference-maker in the contest.
The Lady Chiefs (9-6) also struggled from the free throw line late in the game, connecting on only 4 of 10 attempts in the final quarter. Kickapoo was 7-for-19 on the evening.
“[West Plains] did a good job of being able to pass the ball and find the open player,” Pendergrass said. “When they did miss, they did a good job rebounding the ball and getting second chances. Then we put them at the foul line. It was just tough to get momentum tonight against them.”
A trio of Lady Chiefs finished the game in double figures, including Green (17), freshman Bella Fontleroy (14) and Merced (13).
Varsity Final: West Plains – 67, Kickapoo – 62
West Plains 17 16 13 21 — 67
Kickapoo 17 16 14 15 — 62
West Plains scoring: Mackenzie Brunson – 25, Morgan Mahan – 15, Hailey Meeks – 12, Cass Cunningham – 8, Bre Harlan – 7
Kickapoo scoring: Indya Green – 17, Bella Fontleroy – 14, Chloe Merced – 13, Leah Fredrick – 5, Maddie Barrett – 4, Macie Conway – 4, Natasha Whittet – 3, Kaylee Corbin – 2
Frosh final: Kickapoo – 34, West Plains – 26
JV final: Kickapoo – 51, West Plains – 51