By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Clever, Mo. — The blueprint for slowing down Fair Grove’s potent interior attack is simple — push the bigs out away from the block and deny them easy entry passes.
Execution is another matter.
Seniors Alana Findley and Harley Maxwell combined for 36 points Monday night, as the Lady Eagles completed a wild, second-half rally to defeat Clever 46-43.
From the opening tip, Clever head coach Dan Jones was determined to clog the paint and frustrate Fair Grove’s bread-and-butter attack.
“We knew we were gonna have to double, and we were going to try and displace [Maxwell] and get her away from the block,” Jones said. “Early, we didn’t pay attention to the scouting report, and we let her get deep — you can’t let her be deep. You’ve got to get her out away from that, so when she turns, she’s about eight feet away from the basket and not four.”
While Maxwell scored Fair Grove’s first 6 points of the game, her opportunities — along with teammate Findley’s — were limited in the first half.
Lady Eagles head coach Jenny Talbert knew the Clever lineup could cause her team some problems.
“Obviously, we have some really good post players,” Talbert said. “[Clever] worked really hard to kind of take that away and, when our guards don’t hit very well, it’s hard for us to kind of get ball movement and get our posts in rhythm.”
At the other end of the court, the Lady Eagles were having their own issues dealing with Clever’s three-headed monster on the perimeter.
Senior Harper Little, classmate Tessa Newman and junior Allie Clevenger all chipped in first quarter baskets to give Clever an early 13-8 lead, including a buzzer-beater from Clevenger.
The trio combined for 22 points in the first half and paced Clever to a 28-15 halftime advantage.
While an aggressive first-half defense produced at 13-point advantage for the Lady Jays, it also enacted a heavy toll on the team’s front line of 6-foot-1 senior Abi Menzies and 5-foot-11 junior Madison Gladney.
Saddled with three fouls each in the first half, Jones opted to sit both in the third quarter.
“We followed through with the game plan and were able to get the lead,” Jones said. “Then, we had too many fouls, and I can’t play my bigs. From there, you kind of get tightened up. What do you do?”
As the teams took the court to start the third quarter, Findley talked about taking advantage of the opportunity.
“At that point we knew if we were going to go on a run, we had to do it now while [Menzies and Gladney] were on the bench,” Findley said. “Having them in foul trouble was a huge help to us so, at that point, our mentality was score-stop-score. After getting a good little pep talk from Coach Talbert, we’re ready to go and cut that lead.”
While Findley closed the third quarter with a 3-pointer, the period largely belonged to Maxwell.
WIth Menzies and Gladney out of the game, the 6-foot-2 Maxwell took advantage of the sudden interior mismatch with 8 of her 16 points in the quarter.
Maxwell talked about the differences in working against smaller, faster defenders.
“I know I’ve got to be smart when I get the ball,” Maxwell said. “ All those guards that guard me are real handsy if they’re small. So I have to make sure I keep the ball up high so that I can still score, and then I think my guards know that as well and look in for our posts. It’s great to have them, because I couldn’t score all the points I do without them.”
By the time the third-quarter dust settled, Clever’s lead was down to a single possession at 33-30.
Just over a minute into the final period, senior Cydney Fullerton’s 3-pointer gave Fair Grove its first lead of the game at 34-33; however, Clever answered on the very next possession with a Menzies basket.
After sitting for an entire quarter, Menzies went on a rampage in the fourth, scoring all 10 of Clever’s points in the final frame.
Unfortunately for the Lady Jays, it wasn’t quite enough.
Fair Grove senior Lexie Sutherland connected on a 3-pointer with 2:42 remaining to put the Lady Eagles up for good at 42-41.
Talbert praised her guards for coming through in the clutch with big second-half shots.
“Those were huge,” Talbert said. “Cydney had two big ones, Lexie had a big one and, when they can shoot well and hit those shots, we’re a pretty good team. We’re a lot harder to guard when my guards and my posts can all go score.”
With two minutes to play Findley took over with a basket and two final free throws to close out a chaotic, turnover-plagued finish from both teams.
The 5-foot-11 forward finished the game with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
After the game, Findley talked about stepping up to the free throw line with 12 seconds on the clock and her team nursing a one-point lead.
“Coach Talbert just gave me that look,” Findley said. “”Alana, you know this is up to you — carry your team right here.’ It was a lot of pressure, but I know that the girls trust me, and I would trust them to do the same thing.”
For Clever, the loss comes after a difficult, two-week stretch without any games on the schedule. Jones and the Lady Jays are now tasked with quickly rebounding for a difficult Thursday night clash against Class 5 Ozark.
“We haven’t played in two weeks — longer than that, actually — so, I think that had a little bit to do with it” Jones said. “Way too many turnovers tonight. Balls were getting deflected, we’re throwing balls away, and it’s just not something a veteran team does. Hopefully this one wakes us up a little bit and gets us ready for Ozark on Thursday.”
Menzies finished with a team-high 14 points for Clever. She was joined in double figures by Clevenger’s 13.
Varsity Final: Fair Grove – 46, Clever – 43
Fair Grove 08 07 15 16 — 46
Clever 13 15 05 10 — 43
Fair Grove scoring: Alana Findley – 18, Harley Maxwell – 18, Cydney Fullerton – 6, Lexie Sutherland – 3, Maddie Clark – 1
Clever scoring: Abi Menzies – 14, Allie Clevenger – 13, Tessa Newman – 8, Harper Little – 6, Madison Gladney – 2
JV Final: Fair Grove – 35, Clever – 32