By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The West Plains Lady Zizzers came up just short of knocking off the No. 1 seed and White Division defending champion Ft. Smith-Northside Lady Bears, falling 55-53 in the title game Monday afternoon at Drury University’s O’Reilly Family Event Center.
The Lady Zizzers, who suffered their first loss of the season (10-1), were matched up against a Lady Bears team with a considerable size advantage, which featured at least three players standing 6-foot-3, 5-10 and 5-10.
“I said, ‘When you walk out on the floor, you guys can’t get intimidated by the looks of their team compared to ours. You’ve just got to go out and play,’” West Plains coach Scott Womack said. “And, I thought our girls did a good job of not being intimidated.
“I’m extremely proud of the girls and the effort they gave. They just kept fighting, and that’s what I told them to do going in, ‘Just keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting.’”
Northside used its height advantage to score on put-backs and take a 20-13 lead in the first quarter.
“I thought the key going into the game was the rebounding part of it,” Womack said. “In the first half, they really hurt us on the boards; I think they had eight offensive rebounds in the first half and that just really hurt us.”
In the second quarter, Northside took advantage of its 6-3 junior guard Jersey Wolfenbarger and scored on some high-low plays with Wolfenbarger being on both the giving and receiving ends.
“She’s special,” Northside coach Rickey Smith said of Wolfenbarger, who had a game-high 24 points and has offers from several NCAA Division-I programs. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair and Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors were in the stands on Monday. “She was 5-8 as a freshman, 6-foot as a sophomore, and is pushing 6-4 now. Her game hasn’t caught up with her body yet – you can see she’s still a little bit awkward – but it will.”
With just more than two minutes left in the game and West Plains trailing 51-44, MacKenzie Brunson pulled down a big rebound and was fouled. She made both free throws (51-46), then got a steal and a bucket to pull the Lady Zizzers within 51-48 with 1:55 to go.
“That’s what you want your all-state players to do when it’s crunch time, to not go and hide and step forward,” Womack said.
But, a Jazz Coleman steal at half-court and layup gave Northside a 53-48 lead, and was “the play of the game,” Smith said.
Ashton Judd scored on a drive to pull West Plains to 53-50, but Wolfenbarger hit two free throws (55-50) and Cass Cunningham’s 3-pointer at the buzzer made the final score 53-50, securing Northside’s fifth championship in the Pink & White Lady Classic.
Northside was able to win despite losing 6-2 junior forward Tracey Bershers, who also has several D-I offers and suffered an injury during warmups.
“It was a significant blow,” Smith said. “She’s a tough kid. She wanted to play but couldn’t, and we couldn’t take a chance.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Smith said of West Plains. “They’ve got some players that are really hard-nosed, hit some big shots. Defensively, we couldn’t stop them, and that’s on us. They did a good job executing. Kind of honestly feel good to get out of here with a win.”
Womack was proud of his team for continuing to compete, even when they were down as many as 13 in the third quarter.
“In the second half, I thought we did a lot better job,” Womack said. “I felt like if we could just stay in the game, we might have a chance at the end. We got within three there, and had a chance, but we didn’t execute our play and that hurt. They got the steal and the layup on the other end to go from three to five. We had the ball and a chance to tie it with less than a minute-and-a-half to go and just weren’t able to accomplish what we wanted to.”
Even with the loss, Brunson said the game gave the Lady Zizzers a lot of confidence.
“They are a really good ballclub; they have some height on us,” Brunson said of Northside. “But, we know now that we can play with anyone, whether they’re bigger than us or have really good shooters, we know that we can play with them no matter what.”
“I was really proud of the girls and what they accomplished this week and in this tournament. We’ve got a lot of positives to look forward to on down the season. There’s still a lot of season left, and I’m happy with where we’re at right now, but we’ve got to keep getting better and I think we have a chance to be real successful toward the end of the season.”
No. 1 Ft. Smith Northside 55, No. 2 West Plains 53
Pink & White Lady Classic
Pink Division – Championship game
FT. SMITH NORTHSIDE 55, WEST PLAINS 53
WEST PLAINS 13-13-12-15—53
FT. SMITH NORTHSIDE 20-12-12-11—55
WEST PLAINS (10-1) – MacKenzie Brunson 20, Alli Holesapple 4, Bre Harlan 2, Ashton Judd 19, Cass Cunningham 8.
FT. SMITH NORTHSIDE (10-3) – Eriel West 2, Jersey Wolfenbarger 24, Yani Releford 9, Kayla Flemming 4, Jazzlyn Coleman 9, Quineshia Tillery 7.
Jim Jester Sportsmanship Award: Republic; Jane A. Meyer Award: Allie Clevenger, Clever