By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Walnut Grove, Mo. — Walnut Grove prevailed in its own Holiday Classic championship match Monday night with a thrilling 42-40 victory over Miller.
Faith Gilkey poured in 19 points to lead the Lady Tigers in a rematch with the Lady Cardinals.
Walnut Grove claimed a 56-43 victory in early Dec.; however, head coach Rory Henry knew things would be much more difficult the second time around.
“We knew that this was going to be a battle, we knew they were going to make an adjustment — and they did,” Henry said. “They played a really good zone defense tonight against us, so it was hard it was hard for us to get going.”
In the first quarter, Miller took control on the strength of its perimeter game and standout guard Claudia Hadlock.
Hadlock, a 5-foot-6 sophomore, scored 7 of her 15 points in the opening frame.
Down 11-7 midway through the quarter, Walnut Grove turned to its Class 1 Player of the Year in Gilkey.
The junior guard responded with 8-straight points to help the Lady Tigers close the quarter with a 15-12 lead.
“That’s Faith,” Henry said. “She’s done that all year. When we need a big basket, she’s the one that steps up and does it for us.”
While Walnut Grove would not relinquish its lead during the final three quarters, Miller wouldn’t exactly go away, either.
Midway through the third, two-straight baskets from Hadlock had the Lady Cardinals only a single possession down at 28-25, forcing a timeout from Henry.
Once again, Walnut Grove found itself in need of a boost.
Once again, its playmaker delivered.
Gilkey’s personal 8-0 run stretched the Lady Tigers’ lead to double digits at 36-25.
She was quick to credit her team’s defensive effort for the game’s crucial run.
“I didn’t even know I did that,” Gilkey said. “We just started pushing and got the defense going — one steal, one deflection … anything — it can set us off and get us going. The main thing for us is always defense.”
Down by 11 early in the fourth, Miller still wouldn’t concede.
After baskets from Hadlock and classmate Kaylee Helton helped chip into the Walnut Grove lead, Helton scored with 10 seconds remaining to make it a 2-point game at 42-40.
Unfortunately for Miller, Helton’s final basket also capped the final score.
Even with his team up big in the final period, Henry expected a late run from the Lady Cardinals.
“[Miller] is a really good team, and so I’m not surprised at all by that,” Henry said. “You can’t hold them down for very long, so I was really impressed with us, defensively, to hold them to 40 points tonight.”
Henry was also pleased with his team’s ability to play through adversity against a quality opponent, which he hopes will pay dividends late in the season.
“We rely a lot on turnovers and getting tempo, and we just couldn’t get that going,” Henry said. “But, I’m proud of my kids. We got a lead, and then we held on to it. We didn’t execute perfectly, but I think this type of game makes you better for the long run. We need adversity, and we need to play through stuff like that.”
Up next for Walnut Grove (9-1) is a Jan. 3 matchup at home against Rogersville. Miller (8-2) hosts Morrisville that same evening.
Walnut Grove Girls Championship: Walnut Grove – 42, Miller – 00
Walnut Grove 15 13 05 09 — 42
Miller 12 07 06 15 — 40
Walnut Grove scoring: Faith Gilkey – 19, Lauren Johnson – 14, Sadye Crump – 6, Jaedyn Johnson – 3
Miller scoring: Claudia Hadlock – 15, Kaylee Helton – 15, Payten Richardson – 5, Jessica Epps – 3, Ashten Kingsley – 2