By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
WALNUT GROVE – Miller senior Claudia Hadlock has the talent to single-handedly change the outcome of a game – and the team-first attitude that sometimes prevents her from doing it.
As the Cardinals advanced through the Walnut Grove Holiday Classic bracket, Miller coach Sean Price occasionally needed to remind Hadlock to show just how dominant she can be.
“Her personality is to get everyone else involved,” Price said. “I’m telling her ‘You have to get involved. You have to be the best on the floor.’ And when she does that, she is the best on the floor and she helps us win a lot of basketball games.”
There was no need to have that conversation on Thursday night. Hadlock did it all on her own.
The Cottey College commit scored all 18 of Miller’s points during an incredible fourth-quarter comeback and finished with a game-high 28, leading the Cardinals to a stunning 39-34 victory over Sparta in the holiday tournament’s championship game at Walnut Grove High School.
Miller, which also won the tournament last year, trailed 31-21 after three quarters but made some defensive adjustments and held the Trojans to one field goal in the final eight minutes.
Hadlock took care of the offense, scoring 12 consecutive points to open the quarter and put the Cardinals ahead 33-31 with 3:22 remaining. Sparta responded with a 3-pointer to regain the lead, but Hadlock stole the ball and hit a layup to put the Cardinals up 35-34 with only 1:22 remaining.
Hadlock then went four-for-four from the free-throw line in the final minute to secure the victory.
“She can shoot. She can drive. She can play defense. She can do it all,” Miller senior Kaylee Helton said. “Like, how do you stop her? That’s the question everyone is wanting to know.”
For at least eight minutes, that question had no answer. Hadlock was completely unstoppable.
“I was just playing basketball,” said Hadlock, who was named the tournament MVP. “I think what really helped us was our defense. We turned up the pressure and just got in a rhythm. We were just all clicking really well at the end. Our defense is what won us that game. Not me.”
If the tournament awarded a Most Humble Player award, Hadlock would probably win that too.
“She doesn’t like the credit, but there needs to be credit,” Helton said. “She’s a great player.”
The defensive switch to switch to a 1-2-2, three-quarter-court trap did create some added opportunities for Hadlock, who capitalized on a couple of Sparta miscues to score five points in the quarter’s first two minutes.
“We turned it over a couple of times and you’re better off to get a five-second call than you are to make a bad pass and give up a layup,” Sparta coach Joshua Loveland said. “She got a couple easy ones and then their defense got better. We panicked a little bit. It was just a bad finish.”
The quick five-point run proved to be what Hadlock needed to settle into a rhythm.
From that moment forward, she was clearly the best player on the court.
“If she does that, we win games,” Price said. “If she doesn’t do that, then other teams have the ability to stay with us a little bit and then she has to do it. I want her to just do it from the very start. Tonight she came out kind of slow, missed a couple shots, wasn’t trying to be as assertive and then our defense turned up and then she was able to get moving and going and took over the game.”
The late-game heroics allowed the Cardinals to overcome an abysmal first-half shooting effort. They scored just five points in each of the first two quarters, yet only trailed 16-10 at the half.
“We just missed a lot of shots,” Hadlock said. “I mean, those shots will fall in February. We turned up our defense, focused on defense and then it allows you to play good offense.”
It should come as no surprise that the Cardinals are already thinking about February, as they returned all but one player from last season’s 28-2 team that reached the state quarterfinals.
Price replaced coach Hannah Wilkerson in the offseason, but there’s been no slowing down. Miller is off to a 9-2 start and looking to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
The Cardinals are currently ranked first in the state among Class 2 schools, with their only losses coming to state-ranked teams – Class 2 No. 9 Blue Eye and Class 6 No 5 Republic.
But they can’t look too far into the future just yet. The Cardinals host Class 3 Strafford next week in what will be a showdown between teams currently ranked atop their classes.
“This is a very competitive tournament and it took everything we had to win it,” Price said. “We’re going to enjoy it for a couple of days. We don’t play again until next Thursday, but we have Strafford coming to town so we can’t enjoy this too much. … We have to start preparing for one of the best teams in the state.”
Ashlyn Roller and Brooklyn Roller each had nine points – all on 3-pointers – to lead Sparta, which fell to 8-3. The loss was the lone blemish on an exceptional run through the tournament.
“I thought our kids played extremely well the last two weeks,” Loveland said. “We played an undefeated Macks Creek team and beat them by 20-plus and then turned around and beat Hollister who has some good wins. Beat them by 20-plus and then led Miller the entire game until the last two minutes of the game. It’s a tough one to swallow, but we’re excited about where we are at. Our offense is getting better every day.”
And so is Hadlock.
“She is definitely one of the best players I’ve ever seen play,” Helton said. “I’m just glad that she’s my best friend and that I get to play with her on the court every day.”