Posted: Saturday, 29 December 2012 1:15AM

Walnut Grove tops Southwest

Walnut Grove, Mo. (For  -- Being the host team and No. 1 seed, Walnut Grove is the favorite in its 2012 Holiday Classic Tournament.

To advance to the title game, however, the Lady Tigers had to face Southwest in the semifinal round. The win did not come easy, but Walnut Grove clinched their berth in the championship game with a 55-52 victory on Friday night.

The Harman cousins, juniors Heather and Lexi, led the Lady Tigers attack. Both players scored in double figures in the first half, and were key parts as to why Walnut Grove jumped out to a nine-point first quarter lead. The Harman cousins both consistently found themselves scoring inside by way of quality dribble penetration and passing from their teammates.

Southwest had troubles dealing with Walnut Grove’s aggressive full-court pressure, resulting in many easy baskets for the Lady Tigers. The full-court pressure made it difficult for the Lady Trojans to form any sort of offensive rhythm in the opening quarter.

“We used our press defense and tempo to speed things up and make it hard on them,” Walnut Grove head coach Rory Henry said. “We knew this would be a battle coming in and this was important to get a win like this. It will certainly help us in March.”

Trailing 21-12 after the first period, Southwest had to fight not only Walnut Grove’s tenacious defense, but also the crowd noise coming from the packed gym of Lady Tiger fans. The second quarter is when the Lady Trojans began to right the ship, slowly chipping away at Walnut Grove’s lead.

“I think honestly we got tired and weren’t doing the little things right and then they got the momentum,” Heather Harman said.

The Lady Trojans outscored their opponent 13-7 in the second period, cutting the deficit to only two points going into the half.

Michaela Mitchell, only one of three seniors on Southwest’s roster, had no issue with splitting Walnut Grove’s defense and finding her way to the rim. She led all scorers at the half with 14 points, and finished with a team-high 19 points in the game. However, Mitchell’s teammates were not filling up the stat sheet the same was she was. The rest of Southwest’s roster combined for only 11 first-half points.

Southwest’s defense greatly improved in the second quarter, namely limiting Walnut Grove to one-and-done possessions with no second chance opportunities. With their improvements across the board, Southwest had momentum heading into halftime.

“We just needed to come together and slow down,” Lexi Harman said. “Their momentum was in our heads, so we had to come together and pick each other up and find a way to win.”

Like they did to end the second quarter, the Lady Trojans came out hot start the third. In order to overtake the tournament’s number one seed, Southwest needed other players besides Mitchell to step up.

Junior Montana Hendrix and freshman Jaime Shrum both upped their game, hitting big shots to tie the contest and eventually take the lead. During a three-minute span in the third quarter, the Lady Trojans went on a 9-2 run to take a five-point lead, their largest of the game.

“It came down to us not hitting open shots and the tempo not being in our favor,” Henry said.

Trying to regain the momentum they started the game with, Walnut Grove turned once again to Heather and Lexi Harman. Heather Harman consistently knocked down perimeter shots to stretch out Southwest’s defense, allowing Lexi Harman to work her was inside to battle for rebounds and score put-back baskets.

Heather Harman scored a game-high 24 points, and was complimented by Lexi Harman’s 16 points. Working hand-in-hand, the Harmans cut the Lady Trojans lead to only two going into the final period.

“We just talked about taking good shots and tightening up, having discipline, and being patient,” Henry said.

Like Southwest, Walnut Grove needed some of their role players to contribute more to the scoring effort. Sophomore Audree Crain came off the bench to knock down a huge 3-pointer to tie the game with just less than five minutes remaining in the game.

Lexi Harman found her way to the basket on Walnut Grove’s ensuing possession, giving her team the lead back 49-47 with 4:20 left in the quarter. Once they regained the lead, Walnut Grove never looked back.

“We have a saying, ‘Big players hit big shots in big game,’ and that was the case tonight,” Henry said.

Walnut Grove continued to add to their lead as the final minutes on the clock began to wind down. With a six-point lead inside the final minute, Southwest tried fouling members of the Lady Tigers squad in an attempt to save clock and limit their possessions. The Lady Trojans’ strategy nearly worked because Walnut Grove struggled from the free throw line in the waning seconds, but time was against Southwest.

A 3-pointer by Mitchell cut Walnut Grove’s lead to three, but with only 2.9 seconds remaining in period, the Lady Tigers were able to clinch the win and their spot in the championship game.

Walnut Grove plays Pleasant Hope for the title at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Southwest goes for third at 6 p.m.

Walnut Grove Scoring: Heather Harman 24, Lexi Harman 16, Karsyn Hejna 8, Audree Crain 5, Madisyn Freeze 2

Southwest Scoring: Michaela Mitchell 19, Nicole Ickes 8, Montana Hendrix 8, Taylor Mettlach 6, Shannon Mitchell 6, Jaime Shrum 5

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