By Amanda Perkins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Ava Lady Bears claimed their first district title in more than a decade Thursday night with a 55-47 win over the Forsyth Lady Panthers.
The Lady Bears took the early lead and were up by 6 at the half, but Forsyth came roaring back in the third to lead by four going into the final frame. Ava trailed by five with just three minutes left in the game when junior forward Hannah Evans landed a three and was fouled on the play; her successful free throw brought the game within one. The Lady Bears crept ahead with two more buckets and widened the gap with a combined 11 points in free throws in the final two minutes from Evans and sophomore guard Olivia Gastineau for the win.
“We really tried to battle to keep it out of the post and did a good job of that at times,” said Ava head coach Nathan Houk. “We knew we would get pressed a lot and tried to stay composed. We got a little wild in the third quarter with shooting shots quickly. They got the lead on us and kept in command until about five minutes left in the fourth. We came out of a time out, had to press and got some things going defensively and created some offense with our defense. Then we hit a couple of big shots and once we got the lead, we got them in a position where they had to foul and we made all our free throws down the stretch, and that was key.”
This wasn’t the teams’ first meeting this season; in February, Ava topped Forsyth by 20 points.
“They didn’t have Scarlett (Texeira) then, and she’s a difference maker,” said Houk. “She had a great game tonight and gave us a lot of fits inside. Luckily, we were able to rebound well and keep it out of her hands just enough, and once they got the lead we never gave up and kept fighting every possession.”
Forsyth and Ava each pulled off upsets in the district tournament to advance to the championship game. Ava knocked out top seeded Hollister and Forsyth topped Willow Springs (2 seed).
In Thursday’s game, the Lady Bears led by two to close the first frame, propelled by shots from downtown from Gastineau and Evans. Senior forward Meadow Mardis and freshman guard Savannah Koen answered for Forsyth with buckets of their own, but Ava’s rebounding and four points from the charity stripe gave them the advantage.
Gastineau opened the second quarter with eight unanswered points, including two three-pointers. Lady Panthers junior guard Emma Barrickman connected on her own shot from downtown as well as a bucket underneath, and Ava led 23-17 at the half.
Forsyth opened the third as Ava opened the second, with unanswered points: junior guard Landry Stuart added a basket and senior forward Scarlett Texeira nailed two jumpers to tie the game. Evans once again connected from behind the arc for Ava, but Forsyth took the lead for the first time in the game in the final minutes of the frame, 34-30.
In the fourth, Koen added a three and Barrickman landed a layup and drew a foul to widen the Lady Panthers’ lead with five minutes to play. That’s when Ava began to turn the tide once again with big plays and clutch work at the free throw line.
Houk said the win was a team effort. “Olivia and Hannah made shots for us all night, and then we kept the ball in their hands once we got the lead and they made free throws down the stretch,” he said. “Sara (Mendel) sprained her ankle in the first half, and we taped her up and she came back and battled. She was hobbled, but she played through it, so I’m really proud of her. Celia and Lexie give us our spark on defense and can just get after you and guard you, and we got great minutes from our players coming off the bench, Baylan Alexander and Keeley Akers, especially when Sara went out.”
Forsyth head coach Mandy Rogers said her team has fought adversity all season. “We’re just blessed to have made it this far,” she said. “It was certainly an up and down year for us. We would get started, then shut down, started, then shut down, whether it be from Covid, weather, illness, injury, we’ve battled through a lot, especially in the past few weeks. Day to day, we didn’t even know who would be with us in practice, and I know everybody has been fighting that, but I felt we were maybe hit particularly hard with different things. But our kids are resilient and they kept fighting and I’m super proud of them for that.”
The Lady Panthers will graduate six seniors. “As far as our seniors go, they were a huge part to our program and meant so much to us, from leadership to being a great team player,” said Rogers. “We had the whole works with that group.” Forsyth ends the season 15-7.
The Lady Bears are now 21-5 on the season and will face the district 12 champion in the Class 4 State Tournament on March 10.
Scoring for Ava: Olivia Gastineau, 25; Hannah Evans, 21; Sara Mendel, 4; Keely Akers, 2; Lexie Gastineau, 2; Celia Fossett, 1.
Scoring for Forsyth: Emma Barrickman, 13; Savannah Koen, 12; Scarlett Texeira, 11; Annabelle Barrickman, 6; Landry Stuart, 2; Meadow Mardis, 2; Triniti Sullenger, 1.