Defense propels Miller to second-straight district title

By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

Weaubleau, Mo. — Miller’s sensational sophomores earned another statement win Saturday night — and a Class 2 District 13 title in the process.

Paced by classmates Kaylee Helton, Payten Richardson, Claudia Hadlock and Ashten Kingsley, the Lady Cardinals raced away from Class 2 No. 3 Skyline en route to a 57-41 victory and second-straight district championship.

Just one year removed from a Class 2 quarterfinal appearance, No. 6 Miller entered the season focused on the task at hand — another deep postseason run.

“It was just an amazing feeling,” Helton said of the second-straight title. “We all worked really hard in the gym every day, and at the first practice, we wanted to get in and go — we knew we were going to win it again.”

The 5-foot-8 Helton scored 22 points to lead Miller and was joined in double figures by Richardson, who added 15 in the win.

While Hadlock has been a consistent playmaker for Miller all season, Skyline’s pressure defense was geared to minimizing the standout guard’s touches.

Lady Cardinals head coach Hannah Wilkerson was prepared for such a scenario and praised her team for quickly reacting on the court.

“We kind of knew that was going to happen — they weren’t going to let Claudia just do whatever,” Wilkerson said. “I told our girls one player can’t do it all. We have so many different weapons that we can go to, and a bunch of people knocked down shots. Being able to knock down shots in a game like that is huge, and for as young as they are, that’s major.”

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In the first half, the 5-foot-7 Richardson was a primary benefactor, scoring 12 points and connecting on a pair of 3-pointers in the second period.

With Hadlock drawing so much attention, the game plan became pretty simple.

“We just had to attack and attack,” Richardson said. “When you attack, you get wide open shots. We’ve played ever since we were little, and we just have this chemistry — it’s easy for us to know what each other thinks.”

A 7-0 run late in the second quarter helped stretch the Miller lead to 27-20 at the half.

From there, the Lady Cardinals’ defense began taking control of the game.

Utilizing a hybrid 3-2 zone, Miller shut down Skyline’s driving lanes and forced the Lady Tigers to work primarily from the perimeter.

When Skyline was able to penetrate into the lane, Helton and the 6-foot-1 Kingsley quickly closed out the smaller shooters.

“We tried not to foul,” Helton said. “We were trying to play straight-up and make them kick it back out so our top people can cover that over — we wanted to make them shoot outside more.”

The plan worked — Skyline managed just six points in the third period

Overall team defense has been a point of pride for Miller, according to Wilkerson, who challenged her squad early in the season to fully embrace the scheme.

“Offense usually just comes, but it’s unpredictable,” Wilkerson said. “Defense you can kind of maintain a little bit; you can kind of see what’s coming. All year, our defense has been our main focus, and it’s something that we’ve worked on. It’s a very, very, very different zone than anyone ever plays, but it works.”

While Richardson keyed Miller’s attack in the first half, the second belonged to Helton, who poured in nine points in the third quarter, alone.

The Lady Cardinals stretched the lead to as many as 20 points in the second half, before a barrage of late Skyline 3-pointers trimmed the deficit.

With the Miller machine firing on all cylinders, Skyline head coach Kevin Cheek was left with few options as the game wore on.

“We kind of ran out of steam, and I think we caught Miller when they were playing their best basketball. We just didn’t have enough answers tonight.”

Despite the loss, Cheek praised his group for making significant strides during the season.

“From where we were at in December to now, I couldn’t be more proud,” Cheek said. “They probably improved more than any other group I’ve had.”

Miranda Quennoz and Justine Barb led the Lady Tigers with 18 and 14 points, respectively.

Skyline ends its season with a 20-8 record.

Up next for Miller (24-5) is a sectional round matchup at State Fair Community College on Wednesday, March 4. The Lady Tigers will face District 14 champion Crest Ridge.

Class 2 District 13 Championship: Miller – 57, Skyline – 41

Skyline 05 15 06 15 — 41
Miller 13 14 18 12 — 57

Skyline scoring: Miranda Quennoz – 18, Justine Barb – 14, Emma Crawford – 8, Riley Conley – 1

Miller scoring: Kaylee Helton – 22, Payten Richardson – 15, Claudia Hadlock – 9, Ashten Kingsley – 8, Jessica Epps – 3