By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
From the brink of disaster, to jubilant celebration.
The Kickapoo Lady Chiefs are going back to the Class 5 state playoffs, excited as ever before.
Kickapoo withstood a frantic Ozark comeback over the final 3:30 to prevail 62-59 in Thursday night’s Class 5 District 11 Tournament title game.
Afterwards, players celebrated as if the program hadn’t just won its fourth district title in five seasons.
For this young group, it’s a new journey with new experiences.
“It’s a new team and we’re just so happy we won and played as a team,” said Kickapoo forward Indya Green. “It felt really good.”
Sophomore Chloe Merced led three Lady Chiefs in double figures with 18 points.
Kickapoo faces either Willard or Republic in the Class 5 sectional round at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at Drury University in Springfield.
The Lady Chiefs were runner-up in Class 5 last season, and won a state championship just three years ago.
“You never take (winning) for granted,” said Kickapoo coach Jim Pendergrass. “Our girls had to face adversity and times when it was difficult. When you’re playing a good team like Ozark, not everything’s going to go your way.
“They should be excited. It’s hard to win in the playoffs.”
A wild final 30 seconds began with Ozark briefly taking a one-point lead on Anna Hitt’s basket. Kickapoo answered with a basket from Indya Green to go up 60-59.
Later, Ozark committed a turnover on an in-bounds play from its offensive end. Kickapoo’s Leah Fredrick, who got the steal, then made a pair of free throws with eight seconds remaining.
Trailing 62-59, Ozark missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer from the left wing at the buzzer.
“I’m real proud and pleased with (my team), especially the seniors,” said Ozark coach David Brewer. “To lose a game like that, it’s really hard for your team and your seniors at the end of their careers because you’re so close to a district championship.”
Hitt scored a team-high 18 for Ozark. Four other Lady Tigers scored seven or more.
Ozark was seeking its first district championship since 2012.
Kickapoo led 52-41 with about four minutes remaining. That’s when Ozark turned on the heat (and its full-court press) and mounted a comeback.
Katie Mayes’ basket brought Ozark within 55-52 with 1:30 left. Later, after forcing a Kickapoo turnover, Hitt’s three-point play forged a 57-all tie with 1:10 remaining.
“Give (Ozark) credit. They made some shots after we had a few empty possessions,” Pendergrass said. “We had some missed free throws and turnovers, but we overcame that. And (our players) overcame it together.”
Ozark led 28-26 at halftime. Kickapoo, behind seven offensive rebounds in the third quarter, led 42-38 entering the fourth.
“We were trying to go inside on offense early, but (Kickapoo) are so long that it’s hard to kick it out of that high post,” Brewer said. “Their hands are everywhere and they’re very active.”
Ozark finishes 19-7 overall and graduates a four-player senior class.
“I told the girls afterwards, I wouldn’t be any prouder of them had they won,” Brewer said. “I’d be happier, but not prouder. The outcome has no difference in how I feel about the way they played tonight.”
Kickapoo 62, Ozark 59
Ozark 13 15 10 21 — 59
Kickapoo 18 8 16 20 — 62
Ozark (19-7 overall) – Anna Hitt 18, Olivia Hanks 14, Katie Mayes 9, Anna Scheer 9, Madi Braden 7, Riley Boggs 2
Kickapoo (22-6 overall) – Chloe Merced 18, Indya Green 16, Bella Fontleroy 12, Macie Conway 6, Madie Barrett 4, Leah Fredrick 4, Rachel Senn 2