By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
With five minutes to play on Monday night and host Seneca clinging to a one-point lead, the Big 8 West championship was up in the air.
But the Indians’ defense forced six-straight scoreless possessions by Lamar – including three turnovers – and Seneca seized control en route to a 45-34 win.
Seneca improved to 5-1 in the league and 11-12 overall and will play host to Class 4 No. 6 Mt. Vernon on Wednesday evening for the Big 8 crossover championship. That game will tip off around 7 p.m.
Earlier Monday evening it looked like that game might be played in Lamar as the visiting Tigers led by as many as nine points on three different occasions in the first half.
It didn’t help that Seneca was ice cold offensively – especially in the first quarter. The Indians made just 1-of-11 field goals in the first frame and shot only 15.7 percent on their first 19 attempts of the game.
Lamar sophomore Phajjia Gordan, meanwhile, scored her team’s first nine points and had 11 in the first quarter, helping the Tigers to a 13-4 lead after one.
Lamar (6-12, 4-2) led 15-6 early in the second following a basket by senior Kara Morey, and it was 19-10 several minutes later when Morey made a three pointer.
Three Lamar turnovers down the stretch gave Seneca some late momentum, though. Senior Makayla French, junior Kaleila Uto and junior Aliya Grotjohn each scored in the final 1:11 to pull within 19-16 by the half.
“I think we came out and we kind of punched them in the face in that first quarter,” Lamar coach Mandy Moyer said. “We were in a rhythm then a few things didn’t go our way and that’s where mental toughness comes in. You’ve got to move on from that and play the way you were playing. We just didn’t do that tonight.”
Seneca took its first lead at 23-22 with 3:19 left in the third but still trailed 26-25 heading into the fourth. After Gordan grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a few seconds into the fourth, Lamar led by three.
It would be Lamar’s last field goal for nearly seven minutes, and Seneca answered with a 15-2 run to lead 39-30 with 1:29 left in the game. Lamar scored just three total points in a span of 12 possessions in the fourth quarter.
“That’s what we just talked about,” Moyer said. “About five minutes left we came down and turned the ball over a couple times and Seneca was able to capitalize on that. There wasn’t enough time on the clock to recover from that tonight.”
Grotjohn did most of the damage for Seneca. After scoring just four points in the first half she tallied eight in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth to finish with a game-high 25 points.
“She’s the type of kid she knows when she needs to take over and that’s what she did in the second half against us,” Moyer said. “We just weren’t able to stop her tonight. I felt like we did a good job the first half on her but we just weren’t able to get it done in that second half.”
“She’s always big,” Seneca coach Drew Schulte said. “She comes up every night. Our game versus East Newton I think she scored 26 of her 33 in the second half. She’s a good player and she keeps improving her on her game.”
Freshman Sydnee Staley chipped in three points during the run and French added two free throws.
The Indians were clutch at the free throw line, too, making 12-of-15 attempts in the final eight minutes. Grotjohn was 7-for-9 and French went 4-for-4.
“Being in the first conference championship for some of these I think we might have been a little bit nervous,” Schulte said. “That’s probably why the shots didn’t fall as much in the first quarter but I told the girls just stay positive, they’ll eventually start falling and they did.”
Schulte said Staley did a good job with ball pressure in the fourth quarter, Grotjohn and French “flew around” on the wings and he was also pleased with the defensive play of freshman Samarah Mittag and Uto.
French scored eight points for Seneca and Uto added six. Lamar was led by Gordon’s 14 and Morey’s 11.
Seneca now must grapple with a Mt. Vernon team that won 69-25 in Seneca on Jan. 11. The Mountaineers have won seven in a row – by an average of 33 points.
“We’re just going to try to do everything we can to prepare,” Schulte said. “Mt. Vernon, they’ve got good players and they’re well coached so we’re going to have to have something for them and have a game plan ready.”