By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CLEVER — The ambience was palpable.
Host Clever (18-9) and Fair Grove (24-3), led by strong senior groups, faced off in the Class 3 District 11 semifinals with spot in the district title game against three-time defending state champion Strafford on the line.
Clever had beaten Fair Grove in this same round each of the last two seasons, but this match-up would go to the Lady Eagles in a close 55-53 decision.
After being down nine points as the fourth quarter commenced, the Lady Jays battled back.
The Lady Eagles — clinging to a 54-52 lead with 20 seconds remaining, clamped down on both ends of the two-tone hardwood.
After being fouled, Clever’s Abi Menzies converted one-of-two from the charity stripe.
The Jays hesitated a bit prior to fouling Alana Findley, who with seven seconds remaining, knocked down one-of-two from the line to secure the district semifinals win.
“Any time we play Clever, it is always an awesome game,” said Fair Grove head coach Jenny Talbert. “The past two years, they beat us in the semifinals. They are a great team. We really treat every round as … I mean, you never know when it could be it. We treated it like a district championship. We want to be able to play Strafford in the district finals.”
After falling to the Lady Jays each of the past two district tournaments, the win tastes a bit sweeter for the Lady Eagles.
“It is definitely sweet to take care of business [at Clever],” said Talbert. “We beat them once on their home floor earlier this season, but I knew they would want revenge. They have some really good seniors.”
The first quarter summed up playoff basketball: nerves and turnovers, as both teams were knotted at 14 heading into the second.
“A little tight — some nerves, probably,” said Talbert. “And then they [turnovers] showed up again in the fourth quarter,” said Talbert. “They [Clever] do create some havoc and make you get sloppy.”
The two teams combined for seven first-quarter turnovers.
Being on the road and not wanting the Clever student section to reach a new decibel, the second quarter was vital to the win, as the Eagles rode the aforementioned 11-6 run to create a little separation at half, as they led 25-20.
Senior Harley Maxwell — who led all scorers with her 29 points — knocked down the 3-pointer, followed by the deuce moments later.
Maxwell had 15 points in the first half.
“I have been spoiled for four years with two really good post players (Maxwell, Findley),” said Talbert. “They really stepped up today. Harley was nails from inside, and Alana did the stuff she always does: get rebounds and hit shots.”
Under the tutelage of fifth-year Clever head coach Dan Jones, the Lady Jays kept battling — a common foundation during his tenure.
Senior and College of the Ozarks signee, Harper Little, drained two early 3-pointers in the third quarter.
But the Eagles ripped off another 11-6 run, as they extended the lead to 10 points, 36-26, and led 42-33 at the start of the fourth.
Battling players such as Little, Menzies, and Allie Clevenger is a testament to the Eagles’ defense, but it’s a short celebration as the undefeated Strafford Lady Indians (28-0) await.
And the mentality has to flip the switch in a hurry, as the two square off for the title this Saturday.
“We want to go play Strafford,” said Talbert. “We welcome that challenge. We are going to give it our best effort. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
For Jones, he knows the game came down to many factors, but Maxwell’s 6’2” presence in the paint is one that will continue to resonate over the summer months.
“We let [Maxwell] get away from us. She had the game of her life tonight,” said Jones. “We felt like we had a good plan against her, but they got her the ball in the right areas and she was able to score and that hurt us.”
As for losing his court general in Little, Jones said: “Harper is just an amazing player. She struggled at times shooting during the middle of the season, but tonight it didn’t bother her. She got us back in the game with some great shots. We got in the right position, but it just didn’t bounce our way.”
While Clever graduates a decorated senior class in Little, Menzies and Tessa Newman, seven players will return for next season.
Fair Grove will now face three-time defending state champion Strafford at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Clever with a district championship on the line.
Fair Grove: Maxwell-29 (led all scoring); Findley-19; Lexie Sutherland-3; Madie Clark-2; Brooklyn Luna-2.
Clever: Little (led team scoring) – 16; Allie Clevenger-12; Madison Gladney-7; Tessa Newman-3; Ruthie Brown-3; Abi Menzies-12.