By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
BOLIVAR – The Walnut Grove Lady Tigers may be young on paper but not when it comes crunch time.
With the Class 1 quarterfinal game tied at 28 with 14.5 seconds left, Walnut Grove coach Rory Henry called a timeout to set up a final shot. Freshman Jacie Gavisk got the ball at the free-throw line and handed it off to fellow freshman Ellie Smith, who found a path to the basket to score the game-winner for a 30-28 victory Saturday afternoon at Southwest Baptist University – and back-to-back trips to the final four
“We just talked about that last shot,” Henry said of that timeout. “I’ve really got a lot of trust in Ellie. “We drew up two plays to run just in case, whether they went man or zone and when they went man, I felt really good about the play we had called and they executed it.
“I was really excited about that because we struggled to execute a little bit in the game, and they did a heck of a job defensively against us. I was really happy that we did do what we needed to do there, and Ellie’s a big-time player.”
Henry’s young team, which has no seniors and features four freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors, has been leading the Lady Tigers all season.
“They’ve been doing that all year,” Henry said. “This is a talented group of freshmen, I think. And so, I’ve got a lot of faith in them. We’ve grown, and you know, at this point in the season, they’re not really freshmen anymore in my mind, especially the way they’ve played recently.”
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It was slow going in the first half with both teams struggling to knock down shots, but Golden City opened up with an 8-5 lead after the first quarter.
Walnut Grove, which improved to 23-7, got things going as Smith and Gavisk combined for 12 points to give the Lady Tigers a 17-13 edge heading into halftime.
The Lady Eagles used a 5-0 run early in the third quarter to pull within one (19-18), but Walnut Grove held onto to a four-point lead to close out the quarter (23-19).
The fourth quarter was a battle, similar to when the two teams met on Dec. 14 (a 38-30 Walnut Grove win.) With a minute remaining, it was a Smith-to-Gavisk high-low play that gave the Lady Tigers a 28-25 lead. But with 36.7 seconds left, Maggie Reed hit a 3-pointer from the baseline for Golden City, tying the game at 28 with 14.5 seconds on the clock – enough time for the Lady Tigers to finish it off.
“I think we were all just gotta stay calm,” Smith said coming out of the timeout. “We had plenty of time on the clock to score and we just needed to execute our plays and just one last shot. There were a couple of different things that could have happened, but we definitely executed and that’s all that matters in the end.”
Golden City, which won its first district title in program history this season and finished runner-up last year, enjoyed its best season of the Lady Eagles’ program.
“Coach Scott and I are the luckiest coaches in Missouri,” Golden City coach Derek Judd said. “It doesn’t matter your class size, these are just an amazing group of kids. These girls have nothing to be down about; they should have their heads up. I know the community was just going crazy for them and they deserve every second of it.”
For Walnut Grove, it is the team’s 11th trip to the final four and includes six state titles, two runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes (including 2021). Henry knows it will be a tall task to accomplish.
“Obviously, there are some really good teams up there, but as I told them, we’re a team with nothing to lose,” Henry said. “We’re so young and everybody else has come back with a lot of experience. Those teams are scary when you get to a place like that. We’re not going to play with any pressure, but we might go surprise some people, too.”
And Smith, in her first year in the high school program and first trip to the final four, looks to keep those title hopes alive.
“This is my dream,” Smith said. “So, this is all I’m going to think about until the end, so I can’t wait.”
WALNUT GROVE 30, GOLDEN CITY 28
Class 1 quarterfinal game
GOLDEN CITY 8-5-6-9—28
WALNUT GROVE 5-12-6-7—30
GOLDEN CITY (23-6) – Brooke Beerly 12, Maggie Reed 9, Ahree Lutes 3, Kyndall Scott 4.
WALNUT GROVE (23-7) – Rachel Kruger 1, Payton Johnson 3, Ellie Smith 12, Jacie Gavisk 14.
Up next: Class 1 semifinals – Walnut Grove vs. Delta, 2 p.m., March 11 at Hammons Student Center, Missouri State Univer