Ozark coach Yancy Little knows his team dodged a bullet.
The Lady Tigers, who led by as many as 15 in the first half, survived a furious fourth quarter Ash Grove on their way to a 53-47 win, advancing them to the Pink Division championship game Friday at O’Reilly Family Event Center.
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“Ash Grove is a really good ball club and they’ll win a lot of ball games this year. Our back was against the wall, and it was good for our girls to play with some adversity. We had the lead and then lost it, it was good to bounce back and get the victory,” said Little.
Ozark who started the fourth quarter holding a 35-25 advantage, watch the Lady Pirates go on a 17-4 run to start the quarter, taking a 42-39 lead with just under three minutes remaining.
A Hannah Cook free throw and a Haylee Beard put back tied the game at 42 all with just 2:15 to play.
Just 27 seconds later Ozark’s Courtney Clancy hit the two biggest shots of the game.
The senior guard, who finished with 12 points all by way of trays, drilled a pair of 3s on consecutive possessions to give Ozark a 48-42 advantage.
"That’s why Courtney is in the game, she knows what her role is,” said Little.
Hannah Cook, who finished with a game-high 22 points, would knockdown four free throws down the stretch to secure the game for the Lady Tigers.
“Hitting the free throws at the end was huge for us,” said Little.
For Ash Grove, who suffered just its second defeat of the season, the loss was made worse by an injury to all-conference junior Lakin Simmerman. Simmerman has battled stress fractures all season long and missed the previous four games prior to the tournament.
“Losing Lakin was like watching a nightmare. She is and has been one of our best players for the last two and a half years. She’s a great teammate, and it’s the same spot where her previous injury kept her out for four games. It was tough to see since she’s a great teammate, and she wants to help her team. We hope for a speedy recovery but I would be lying if it was going to be quick,” said Milleson.
In Simmerman’s absence, the junior duo of Halee Cashio and Jamie Mauss stepped up for Ash Grove, each scoring 12 in the losing effort.
“Haley is a big key with us and her ability to step out and score the ball from deep. She’s a pretty tough match up and was pretty key for us last year coming down the stretch when we were able to win a share of our conference title. In Lakin’s absence, we are going to really need Haley to step up and play big for us,” said Milleson.
Ozark, who already has runner-up finishes in the Rogers Tournament and Fort Smith Tournament of Champions, is hoping that tomorrow ends with a first place finish.
“I think it would be huge for us to bring home a championship. We always want to be winners, that’s a mindset. We have had two close games and Arkansas brings some major talented ballclubs to the Pink and White, but we want first not second. We have already had that taste in our mouths twice, we don’t want a third," said Little. "We became scorers, not shooters in the fourth quarter, we found ourselves late to finally make something happen. We have a bunch of games left, but tomorrow will be huge for us."