By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield, Mo. — The redemption tour is complete.
A year after getting upset in the quarterfinal round, Walnut Grove returned to the state playoff bracket with one simple mission.
Win it all.
The Lady Tigers did exactly that in Saturday’s Class 1 championship with a 57-40 win over Stanberry.
Faith Gilkey led Walnut Grove with 27 points.
The Lady Tigers have become a final four fixture, with seven appearances in the past eight seasons. After the overtime loss to Wheatland in the 2018 quarterfinals broke the program’s consecutive streak, Walnut Grove entered this season motivated and hungry to start a new one.
From the opening tip, the Lady Tigers established control with their patented up-tempo, pressure-based attack.
Gilkey was particularly effective early on with 10 points in the first quarter; however, it was teammate Mikayla McVay’s trio of 3-pointers in the second that helped Walnut Grove stretch its lead to ten at 30-20.
“Obviously Faith is our motor and gets us going and just does a ton,” Henry said. “She really came out, played hard and she gave us points when we needed, but Mikayla’s baskets were as big as anything we had. Those were huge in the second quarter, and she’s done that all year.”
In the second half, Stanberry rallied.
A personal, 6-0 run from Lily Osborn trimmed Walnut Grove’s lead to just five at 34-29.
After a timeout, Walnut Grove responded … with a sledgehammer.
The Lady Tigers ripped off 11-straight points — stretching into the fourth quarter — and pushed the lead back into double digits.
Henry believed his team was well-prepared for such a scenario.
“We knew that this is too good of a team to just knock out and blow out,” Henry said. “When that happened, we call timeout and nobody panicked. We’ve played a really tough schedule, and we’ve been in any type of game that you can think of this year. I think that experience gave us that opportunity there in the third to handle a run like that and to come back and make a big run, ourselves.”
After the game, Henry was quick to praise his seniors, Grace McPhail and Myranda McVay, for grinding through their careers to finally earn a state title.
“I know they wanted this — more than anything,” Henry said. “And I’m just so happy that they were able to get this before they graduate.”
An emotional McVay recalled growing up around Walnut Grove’s rich tradition of state championships — prior to Saturday, the Lady Tigers won titles in 2007, 20013, 2014 and 2015.
“I went to my first basketball game at Walnut Grove when I was two days old,” McVay said. “I watched them win the championship in 2007, I’ve been a manager for all the other years they won, and to be on the floor, look up in the crowd and see every single one of those girls that I’ve been supporting come back and watch me play now — that was the most emotional and best experience that just added right on to the state championship.”
While McPhail’s Walnut Grove was much later, she felt immediately accepted by both teammates and community.
“I moved in my freshman year,” McPhail said. “To me, they’ve just been family — they didn’t treat me as anything different they let me in. They’re some of the best friends I’ve ever made.”
The Lady Tigers finish the season 28-5.
Class 1 championship final: Walnut Grove – 57, Stanberry – 40
Stanberry 12 11 06 11 — 40
Walnut Grove 17 15 09 16 — 57
Stanberry scoring: Peyton Gage – 15, Lily Osborn – 11, Madilyn Sager – 7, Elle Ellis – 3, Lexi Craig – 2, Sydney Mattson – 2
Walnut Grove scoring: Faith Gilkey – 27, Makayla McVay – 13, Lauren Johnson – 9, Grace McPhail – 8