By Matt Turer — firstname.lastname@example.org
Mountain Grove, Mo. — With tired legs and a four-point deficit, the undefeated Gainesville Bulldogs woke up. Shai Meek scored seven fourth quarter points and Gainesville closed the game on a 13-2 run against Salem to secure their third consecutive Mountain Grove Tournament title and second straight over the Tigers, 37-30.
“We just preach a lot about staying poised,” Gainesville head coach Morris Jenkins said. “Whether we’re up 10, down 10 or tied, and I thought we did that.”
Both Jenkins and Salem head coach Jake Reardon knew before Thursday night’s tip that exhaustion from the four-day tournament would be a factor, and it was. Top-seed Gainesville was averaging 61.7 points per game coming into Thursday and 2-seed Salem was averaging 59.6. Thursday night’s point totals were season lows for both sides.
“Both teams were dead,” Reardon said. “They couldn’t throw it in the ocean. We couldn’t throw it in the ocean. We couldn’t push. We couldn’t play half-court. I guess you could say it was a defensive battle, but I think both teams were just tired.”
Trailing 28-24 early in the fourth quarter, Class 2 No. 4 Gainesville (10-0) went on an 8-0 run to turn its four-point deficit into a four-point advantage, eventually outscoring the Tigers (6-4) 13-4 in the quarter.
“When it was that close I wanted to keep it close, because I knew if either team in that low scoring of a game could get a two- or three-possession lead, it was pretty much over tonight and that was the case,” Reardon said. “Two or three possessions with only 25 points scored is almost a fourth of your points.”
Gainesville went 7-8 from the free-throw line in the final frame, helping secure the win.
While Meek got the attention down the stretch, it was tournament MVP Annie Noah that kept Gainesville within one possession of Salem entering the fourth quarter after the Tigers turned a 14-13 halftime deficit into a 26-24 lead through three quarters. Noah was excellent inside against 6’3” Baylee Bilyeu, scoring eight of her 10 points in the third quarter while showing off a smooth right hook.
The Bulldogs limited Bilyeu to four points, nearly nine points below her season average. More impressively for Gainesville, Payton Curley finished with just 10 points on the night—and zero in the fourth quarter—despite averaging 21.9 points per game on the season.
“It boiled down to our girls playing defense well on their good players and making it tough on them to get good shots,” Jenkins said. “I thought our girls did a really good job of executing our defensive gameplan.”
If there were any lingering questions surrounding Gainesville’s steadfast status as a Class 2 basketball power, they should mostly be answered after this week. The Bulldogs graduated their leading scorer, three other starters and brought in a brand new head coach this season and don’t seemed to have skipped a beat.
“We obviously had a decent showing here,” Jenkins said. “This group of girls has been successful since junior high. I think they expect to do well. I’ve just been fortunate to come in and mix in with them and they do a good job of being a team.”
Gainesville is off the Sparta Tournament on Jan. 5. Salem hosts Rolla (1-7) on Jan. 3.
FINAL: Gainesville 37, Salem 30
Salem 7 6 13 4 – 30
Gainesville 7 7 10 13 – 37
Salem- Payton Curley 10, Kari Hatridge 5, Kaleigh Nash 5, Baylee Bilyeu 4, Shelby Carr 4, Michaela Chilton 2
Gainesville- Shai Meek 12, Annie Noah 10, Michia Jenkins 8, Chasity Mansker 5, Destiny Scot 2