By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
NIXA — There were multiple moments in the Class 6 District 11 championship game where the Nixa girls basketball team was pushed to the brink of a deficit it could not overcome, only for junior guard Rhianna Gibbons to step up and rescue the Eagles from a season-ending defeat.
When she fouled out in overtime, two other junior guards made the biggest plays of the night.
Alison Kamies hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in the extra session and Macie Conway secured a loose ball at the other end of the court as the Eagles rallied back from the brink for a 56-54 win over rival Ozark on Thursday, earning their first district title since 2018.
The Eagles trailed by 10 points in a sluggish first half and were down by six points with three minutes left in regulation, but battled back to stun the Tigers and set up a showdown with District 12 champion Kickapoo in the first round of the state tournament on Wednesday night.
“We’ve been in some tough battles this year,” Nixa coach Jennifer Perryman said. “We’ve been in some close games and our mindset wasn’t where it needed to be, but tonight it was.
“I told them ‘You’ve been battle tested all season long. You have the right mindset and you have the talent. Go win the game.’ Once we took the lead, I think they settled down.”
Anna Hitt and Moriah Putt combined for 13 points in the first quarter as the Tigers raced out to an early 14-6 lead, which ballooned to 22-12 with only a few minutes left before halftime.
But Gibbons ended the half with a dominant performance, scoring the final eight points during a 10-4 Nixa run that trimmed Ozark’s lead to 26-22 at the intermission. That scoring surge included a momentum-shifting sequence where she was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three of her free-throws, then converted an and-one play to close out the half.
“It went from a 10-point game to a four-point game in less than a minute,” Ozark coach David Brewer said. “As good as we played in the first half, we didn’t finish the half well. Obviously you’d like to have that 10-point lead, but we didn’t finish the first half well and from that point on, it was what it was the rest of the game.”
Nixa, which didn’t score more than four consecutive points in the first half, opened the third with a 5-0 run to take its first lead since the game’s opening minutes. Gibbons hit the go-ahead 3, the first of five lead changes during a wild third quarter that ended with Nixa leading 34-33.
But Riley Boggs and Putt combined to score 13 points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter as Ozark regained a 46-40 lead with three minutes left in regulation.
That didn’t faze the Eagles, who had already overcome a larger deficit in less time.
“We were not going to lose this game,” Gibbons said. “There was no way that we were going to let ourselves lose this game.”
Conway hit a layup to bring Nixa within four, and Gibbons nailed a pair of free-throws to make it a one-possession game with 1:54 to go. Putt and Nixa freshman Sadie Conway each split free-throws over the next 25 seconds, then Gibbons hit both of hers to make it 47-47.
Gibbons finished a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line and finished with 17 points.
“She played awesome,” said Macie Conway, who led the Eagles with 20. “She had some really big plays. She’s what brought us out of the hole some of those times when we were down.”
Putt led all scorers with 26, including all seven of Ozark’s points in overtime.
Her final bucket of the night came after she collected her own rebound and put the Tigers ahead 54-52 with about 60 seconds to go, their seventh different lead of the evening.
Nixa overcame all of them, as Kamies put the Eagles ahead for good on the next possession and the Nixa defense never allowed the Tigers to get another serious look at the basket. The Eagles broke up Ozark’s final attempt and Macie Conway scooped up the ball to seal the win.
“We’ve kind of hung our hat on our defense this year,” Perryman said. “I think in the first three and a half quarters, it wasn’t where we wanted it to be. But it was when it mattered.”
Nixa’s next game will hold some added significance for Macie Conway, who transferred to the district from Kickapoo before the season and has helped the Eagles to a 21-7 record.
“I’m still friends with most of the girls,” she said of her former teammates. “It’s weird playing them, but it’s not like there’s anything tension-wise. We’re all still friends. It’s fun. It’s basketball.”
Few play the sport better than the Chiefs, who are currently ranked No. 2 in the state and are riding a 22-game win streak. Their 26-2 record includes a 23-point victory over the Eagles.
“At this point, I’ll play anybody anywhere,” Perryman said. “I’m just happy to be playing.”
Ozark ended the year 14-12 but secured a fourth straight trip to the district final.
“Brewer doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” Perryman said. “He’s had an unbelievable career. He’s one of my best friends and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”