By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Walnut Grove’s big three is back in form, and they’re all thinking the same thing.
Winning another state championship.
Because that’s always the mindset at Walnut Grove.
The Lady Tigers took their latest step toward another state championship with a 65-31 thumping of Montrose in Saturday’s Class 1 quarterfinals at SBU in Bolivar. Junior Lauren Johnson led three Lady Tigers in double figures with 21 points.
Walnut Grove held Montrose to just two points in the decisive second quarter.
“We came out with a lot of intensity in the first half. Defensively, I was really happy with how we got after it,” said Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry.
The victory sends Walnut Grove to next week’s Class 1 final four in Springfield. Walnut Grove (26-5 overall) plays No. 1-ranked Community (28-1 overall) at 5:10 p.m. March 12 at JQH Arena in a semifinals matchup.
The Lady Tigers will be playing for their second straight state championship and sixth overall. Eight of Walnut Grove’s 10 final four appearances have come since the 2011-12 season.
“For most schools, it’s not common to get this far and everyone’s usually excited just to make it to the district championship,” said Walnut Grove junior Makayla McVay. “At Walnut Grove, our goal is to win a state championship.”
Walnut Grove seized control with its trademark scramble press. Montrose had no answer.
The Lady Tigers led 20-7 after the first quarter and 36-9 at halftime. Montrose went scoreless over an eight-minute span in the first half.
“That’s always our plan for every game,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to make sure they don’t get the ball past half court, get a big lead and go from there.
“You could tell they were kind of confused and had never really seen anything like that (press).”
Walnut Grove’s junior trio of Johnson, Faith Gilkey and Mikayla McVay combined for 55 points.
McVay appears back in form after suffering an ACL tear last summer. Walnut Grove feared she wouldn’t return until districts.
Instead, McVay returned in mid-January.
“To have her in January was amazing,” Henry said. “And it was good for her, too, because it took her a little bit to get back into rhythm. Now that she is, she’s playing really well.”
McVay said she’s also taken more leadership duties as an upperclassmen.
“Freshman year, I was terrified. I tried to do what I could, but I was mostly like, ‘Here, you guys take it. You guys go,’” she said. “Sophomore year, I stepped up a little more. Now this year, I really feel the seniority and I’ve been more of a leader.”
The outcome marked the 350th career win for Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry. Walnut Grove fans held up orange “350” signs after the game, but Henry deflected the credit to his past and current players.
“I’d rather not celebrate that stuff. I’d prefer to celebrate team success,” Henry said. “I’m just very blessed to have coached great players. That’s what I think about: The relationships I’ve had.”
Walnut Grove 65, Montrose 31
Montrose 7 2 16 6 — 31
Walnut Grove 20 16 17 12 — 65
Montrose (26-4 overall) – Abby Vogle 18, Ryan Landes 6, Payton Lasswell 2, Chloe Rohaus 2, Jaidyn Steinbach 2, Lindsay Eye 1
Walnut Grove (26-5 overall) – Lauren Johnson 21, Faith Gilkey 19, Makayla McVay 15, Jaedyn Johnson 5, Sadye Crump 3, Taylor Gold 2