By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE, Mo. – The last time the Miller girls played in a state quarterfinal game, Hannah Wilkerson was a senior on the Cardinals basketball team.
Nine years later Wilkerson is returning to the quarterfinals, this time as Miller’s coach.
“This is a better feeling,” she said Wednesday after her team throttled Wheaton 61-24 in a Class 2 sectional at Carthage High School. “I want these girls to experience that. It was a great feeling then and I want these girls to experience that and get that feeling. You don’t get that back. I want them to enjoy it. They deserve it.”
The Cardinals, with just eight players on the roster and six of them freshmen, dominated a much more experienced Wheaton team.
Miller went on an 18-0 run before halftime to lead 32-17 at the break and never let off the gas in the second half.
Before Wilkerson called an early timeout, though, the Cardinals were struggling.
They missed shots on their first five possessions of the game, including two free throws. Some shots went halfway through the hoop and rattled out. Others didn’t hit a thing.
Wheaton, meanwhile, jumped out to a 7-0 lead. That led to Wilkerson’s timeout.
“It takes one timeout and getting me a little fired up,” she said of the turnaround. “A lot of nerves played into tonight, I understand that. Our girls are pretty young. Wheaton’s more experienced so they came out and they were ready to play. We just had to get our feet under us.”
“They just needed to settle down a little bit,” she said. “Our shots weren’t falling.”
Freshman Payten Richardson finally got the Cardinals on the board with 5:14 left in the quarter, the start of a 9-0 run for Miller that included five points by freshman Kaylee Helton and free throws by freshman Claudia Hadlock.
When Wheaton senior Alyia Prewitt grabbed an offensive rebound and scored in the final minute of the quarter, the Bulldogs trailed just 14-13. That marked the beginning of the end for Wheaton.
The Bulldogs went scoreless for nearly seven minutes while Miller got hot from three-point range and opened up a 32-13 lead. It was 32-17 at halftime.
Wheaton coach Jessica Lombard cited Miller’s aggression as part of the reason for the turnaround.
“They were good at being aggressive,” she said. “It was definitely hard for us to handle. Their tall girls, their size definitely overpowered us tonight.”
Helton poured it on in the second half. She scored 17 of her game-high 29 points after halftime, including 11 points in the third quarter.
“She’s just one of those players that has come along for us great towards the end of the year,” Wilkerson said. “She’s gotten better and better. I want that in a player. I don’t want you to start out hot and drop off at the end of the year. This is when we need her the most and she’s really stepped up for us.”
“She’s a good player,” Lombard said. “A big girl and she also has quickness. That’s something that’s hard for us to handle.”
Wheaton junior Zolanna Simpson scored the first points of the fourth quarter, making it a 24-point game, but it was the last time the Bulldogs scored.
Miller’s lead hit 30 points – and led to a running clock – when Hadlock hit a step-back three pointer with 6:01 left in the game, making it 56-24.
Hadlock was the only other Cardinal to score in double figures, finishing with 13 points. Senior Bethany Gulick scored seven points and junior Jessica Epps and Richardson each scored six.
Senior Tori Goosetree led Wheaton with seven points. The Bulldogs finish with a 20-8 record.
“Heck of a season for us,” Lombard said. “I’m proud of them.”
Miller, 27-5, will take on Hartville in the quarterfinals at 1:45 p.m. Saturday in Republic. Hartville, 26-4, beat Blue Eye 62-36 on Wednesday.
Wilkerson’s 2010 squad got all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Harrisburg.
“The beginning of the year, beginning of the summer this is where they wanted to be,” she said. “I reminded them, we’ve had plenty of talks. If you want it you’ve got to work for it. They have. They came in day in and day out and they knew what our goals were. They put their blinders on and they’re ready to go every day.”