By Kai Raymer
Missouri Challenge tournament MVP Abby Oliver said there was a lot of heart on this year’s Southwest team.
Good thing, because there wasn’t much height.
The Southwest group – already undersized at full strength – was deploying a makeshift four-guard lineup at the end of Sunday’s tournament championship title game versus St. Louis and its duo of Division I post players.
A pair of free throws and a last-second steal by Drury commit Payton Richards (West Plains) helped Southwest hold on for the win and the tournament championship, as it overcame a huge rebounding differential to defeat the St. Louis all-stars 85-84 at Drury’s O’Reilly Family Event Center.
“All of us have either played with each other or against each other a lot, so we know our strengths and weaknesses,” Richards said. “I think it made a difference in that last five minutes of the game. I don’t know how much those girls have played with each other compared to how much we have, but I know we’ve played together a lot.”
Oliver, the sharpshooter from Strafford, had a team-high 21 points and made four of 10 3-point attempts. Oliver and Richards, AAU teammates, each logged a game-high 34 minutes.
“I think the whole team should’ve (received) MVP,” said Oliver, who’s signed to play at College of the Ozarks. “We were smaller, but we had more heart.”
Smaller is an understatement. Southwest saw two of its three tallest players – Ozark’s Mikayla Putt (1:24 remaining in second half) and Kickapoo’s Jordan Seconds (48 seconds remaining in OT) – foul out at pivotal moments of the game.
Against a St. Louis front line that featured Kirkwood’s 6’1” post Lauryn Miller (UCLA) and St. Joseph’s Academy 6’3” post Kelly McLaughlin (Miami-Ohio), Southwest was forced to end the game with a guard-heavy lineup of Richards, Oliver, Taylor Fergen (Republic), Amanda Kearney (Branson) and Elle Williams (West Plains).
St. Louis won the battle on the boards convincingly, out-rebounding Southwest 64-35, including 28 offensive rebounds.
“Our tallest players were the ones who fouled out, and we were already small before that,” Oliver said.
Miller (25 points, 17 rebounds) and McLaughlin (23 points, 16 rebounds) dominated around the basket, but Southwest’s quickness may have caused a game-changing play.
With her team trailing 85-84 and the clock winding down, Miller grabbed an offensive rebound and began to look toward the top of the key, only to have Richards come in from behind and knock the ball free. St. Louis recovered the loose ball, but could only get off a hurried 3-pointer as time expired.
Richards led all players with seven steals.
“I honestly thought I was out of bounds, and if I was, I shouldn’t have been able to do that but I did anyways,” Richards said. “I was nervous in that moment, I was like, ‘Crap, I went out of bounds.’ But I guess I tip-toed it. It felt good to make that play. I got mauled after that. All I saw was the ball rolling on the floor.”
Southwest overcame its rebounding struggles by making nine of 26 3-point attempts, compared to just 2 of 16 by St. Louis. Both teams were average at the free throw line (28-for-44 by Southwest; 28-for-41 by St. Louis) and below-average from the field (24-for-64 by Southwest; 27-for-74 by St. Louis).
Richards’ two free throws put Southwest ahead 85-82 with 36.4 seconds left in overtime. St. Louis missed a pair of free throws, but Miller muscled her way into the lane for the offensive rebound and putback.
Southwest missed a shot on its ensuing possession, but St. Louis couldn’t capitalize as it missed two potential go-ahead field attempts before time expired.
A putback by Miller gave St. Louis a 72-67 lead with five minutes remaining in regulation. Southwest answered with five straight points by Oliver – via a steal and layup and a 3-pointer.
Miller hit a 3-pointer to tie the game (77-all) with just over two minutes remaining. Southwest missed a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation.
Amanda Kearney added 16 points for Southwest. Putt had a team-high 10 rebounds. Abee Shelton (West Plains) played 11 minutes but didn’t score.
“It was a lot of fun and a great experience to be able to participate in this,” Richards said. “Not only to play with these girls on my team, but also play against some of the great players in the state. It’s been a blessing to represent southwest Missouri in high school and then continue to do that into college.”
Southwest 85, St. Louis 84
Southwest 48 32 5 —85
St. Louis 45 35 4 — 84
Southwest – Abby Oliver 21, Payton Richards 16, Amanda Kearney 16, Jordan Sanders 14, Elle Williams 7, Mikayla Putt 7, Taylor Fergen 4
St. Louis – Lauryn Miller 25, Kelly McLaughlin 23, Jadyn Pimentel 11, Geena Stephens 9, Izzy Farrell 6, Alexa Chairs 5, Aliyah Belcher 3, Caitlyn Demaree 2