By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Kickapoo girls basketball team left something to be desired at the free throw line in the first half of Tuesday’s district semifinal game in Joplin.
The Lady Chiefs got to the line often but made just 7-of-15 attempts in the first two quarters.
Leading by one possession in the final minute of the game, Kickapoo made the most of those opportunities, though. The top-seeded Chiefs knocked down 5-of-6 in a 29-second span to fend off fourth seed Ozark 47-39 and advance to Friday’s Class 6 District 5 championship against Nixa.
“I thought our team kept their composure,” head coach Jim Pendergrass said. “When you get in a game like this it’s really, really tough. We kept our composure. We didn’t put a lot of bad possessions together. If we had a bad possession we came right back with a good one and that’s what it takes in these games. We made it difficult on them. I thought our defense was really good tonight. In the first half they had 20 points with seven from the foul line and one three we lost off the baseline out of bounds. I was proud of our kids.”
Kickapoo, 21-3 and ranked third in the state, avenged a 10-point loss to the seventh-ranked Tigers from earlier in the season. Tuesday’s rematch was a close one throughout.
Kickapoo trailed 11-8 after a quarter but led 21-20 at halftime. The Chiefs relinquished the lead once in the second half, when Ozark’s Riley Boggs scored to make it 26-25 at the 4:15 mark of the third quarter. But Kickpaoo’s Miya Nieto answered with a three pointer and her team had the advantage the rest of the way.
It was 32-30 heading into the fourth, and a three by Kaya Goldsby gave the Chiefs a small cushion. Ozark failed to score on its first three possessions of the quarter, turning it over twice, and a Ysabella Fontleroy free throw made it 36-30 with 5:06 remaining. She added a driving layup about 30 seconds later to make it a 6-point game.
Ozark (20-7) wasn’t done, though. A three-point play by Alexis Soloman and a basket by Moriah Putt cut it to 38-37. After that, Kickapoo went to work at the free throw line.
Fontleroy made two with 2:02 remaining, and Goldsby added three more over the next minute-and-a-half. Her last one made it 43-39 with 34 seconds to go.
Nieto and Fontleroy went 4-for-4 in the final 24 seconds to close it out.
“It’s a lot easier if you make your free throws and we had to make them at the end tonight,” Pendergrass said. “When you’ve got a small lead and you’re trying to finish the game, our kids made them when they had to.”
Kickapoo finished the game 17-for-29 from the line.
Ozark coach Doug Hepler said the difference in the game was Kickapoo’s free throw shooting and offensive rebounding.
“That was a huge difference,” he said. “They had a huge advantage on both of those. We needed to do a better job of blocking out. I thought we did a good job defending but at the end of the day the second-chance points and second-chance opportunities are the ones that hurt us.”
Pendergrass said a key was limiting Ozark’s three-point shooting. The Tigers had one in the first quarter and were scoreless from three the rest of the night.
“Last time we gave up eight,” Pendergrass said.
Kickapoo will face fourth-ranked Nixa on Friday for the championship in a battle of the top two seeds. The Chiefs won 59-56 in the regular season.
“In this district there’s a lot of teams that could win it and we’re just thankful we’re one of the ones still playing and surviving,” Pendergrass said.
Fontleroy led all scorers with 23 points and Goldsby scored eight for Kickapoo. Ozark was led by Boggs and Putt, who each scored 12.