By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Safe to say, the sequel was better than the original.
A year after Strafford blew out Whitfield by 46 in the Class 3 state championship game, the two schools had a rematch Friday that lived up to the hype.
Strafford, the two-time defending state champion, outlasted Whitfield 67-50 in a physical, spirited game at boisterous Hammons Student Center.
“We knew, coming into this game, that it was going to be a dogfight,” said Strafford coach Steve Frank. “The animosity from last year’s game was carried all the through.”
Strafford junior and Mizzou commit Hayley Frank went off for 32 points and 10 rebounds on 13-for-19 shooting from the floor. Whitfield’s star, Aijha Blackwell, also delivered with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
Blackwell fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, and the game quickly swung in Strafford’s favor.
Strafford goes for its third straight state championship at 6:20 p.m. Saturday at JQH Arena versus California (26-4 overall).
Even with the epic win against Whitfield, Strafford still has one game to go. The Indians (32-0 overall) are riding an 81-game winning streak.
“We talked in the locker room: ‘It’s not over yet. We have another game to play for the state championship.’” Hayley Frank said. “As much of a good feeling as this is, we have to regroup and get ready for Saturday.”
The rematch had it all: rowdy crowds, big shots and plenty of back-and-forth mind games.
Strafford and Whitfield traded blows for three and a half quarters. The game had 13 lead changes and gloating from both sides.
“The hype of the game… it goes so much deeper than anyone realizes,” Steve Frank said. “There was a lot of tension there. That’s what makes great games.”
Strafford trailed by one (38-37) late in the third quarter. That Indians then went on 12-2 run that stretched into the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Kayley Frank’s fast-break layup put Strafford ahead 49-40 with 7:05 remaining.
Whitfield (Class 3 No. 4-ranked) crept within 49-45 on a Blackwell 3-pointer, but would get no closer. Blackwell fouled out with 3:46 remaining and Strafford leading 57-47.
“It wasn’t desirable (that Blackwell fouled out), but we had opportunities and we have kids that can play,” said Whitfield coach Michael Slater.
Strafford put multiple defenders on Blackwell throughout the game, including senior Madison Chittenden and sophomore Mica Chadwell.
One moment saw Chadwell face-guarding Blackwell near Whitfield’s basket as Strafford was shooting free throws on its end. Chadwell and Blackwell were the only two players on the other side of the half-court line.
Said Strafford point guard Kyndall Compton: “She (Chadwell) likes to do that. She was perfect (to guard Blackwell).”
You don’t win two straight state titles without a little gamesmanship.
“That’s what we tried to do the whole game – get up in (Blackwell) and not let her take it to the basket as much as possible,” Chittenden said. “If we were up and guarding (Blackwell), we knew we had that help behind us if she went by.”
Both teams had foul trouble.
Three other Whitfield starters fouled out. Strafford starters Zoey Mullings and Kayley Frank both had four personal fouls late in the third quarter.
“You hate (fouls) in a big game like this,” Steve Frank said. “They got in foul trouble, we got in foul trouble. I wish that neither team would’ve gotten in foul trouble because you’d like to see every player out there all the way to end of the game.”
The Indians led 23-22 at halftime. Hayley Frank accounted for 17 of Strafford’s 23 points up to that point.
“Usually, our balance is our biggest key,” Steve Frank said. “Because of foul trouble, we only had (three) people that scored a field goal in the first half. That concerned me. But I knew, with this group, that we’d come out in the second half and make the transitions that were needed.
“Second half, we had that balance.”
Strafford fell behind by three in the third quarter. The Indians finally found scoring help outside of Hayley Frank, from the likes of Chadwell (eight points), Kayley Frank (seven points), Compton (six points) and Mullings (six points).
Whitfield reserve Jade Moore added six points.
The Warriors dropped to 22-7 overall. Their losses have come against the likes of Incarnate Word Academy (Class 4 No. 2-ranked), St. Joseph’s Academy (Class 5 No. 7-ranked) and Kirkwood (Class 5 No. 2-ranked).
“We did not plan to come in and have the score be so lopsided like last year,” Slater said. “We did not want that same thing to happen. Bottom line, losing sucks. No one wants to lose.
“And this is the biggest stage, right? There are only four teams in Class 3 still playing, so what’s not to be excited about?”
Whitfield (22-7 overall) plays Clark County (28-2 overall) at 11 a.m. at JQH Arena for third place.
“My team as a whole left it all out there,” said Whitfield’s Nia Griffin. “We came out with a lot of energy. I felt like we left everything we had on the floor. Things just didn’t necessarily turn out our way.”
Strafford 67, Whitfield 50
Whitfield 8 14 18 10 — 50
Strafford 14 9 22 22 — 67
Whitfield – Aijiha Blackwell 25, Jade Moore 6, Kelsey Blakemore 5, Nia Griffin 4, Tajah Foster-Walker 4, Taylor Lawson-Hicks 3, Kaela Lewis 3
Strafford – Hayley Frank 32, Mica Chadwell 8, Kayley Frank 7, Kyndall Compton 6, Zoey Mullings 6, Madison Chittenden 6, Logan Jones 2