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By: Corey Stott
MEMPHIS, Mo.- 3/6/21- In the southeast corner of the Scotland County High School gym, there is a banner with a picture of the 2017 Missouri Class 2 Third-Place Scotland County Lady Tigers. It seems only fitting that the Lady Tigers (22-5) punched their ticket for a return trip to the state final four with a hard-fought 36-33 victory over the Eugene Lady Eagles (15-7) under the ever-watchful eyes of that banner.
The excitement in the community was palpable. Spectators tailgated in the parking lot throughout the late morning. The fans were lined up at both entrances waiting for the doors to open at 12:15 to secure their coveted favorite seats. There was no doubt about the magnitude of the game to come.
But while a sea of blue quickly filled the east side of the gymnasium with an excited buzz, the Scotland County Lady Tigers appeared calm and relaxed with easy smiles and knowing grins as they stretched in pre-game warmups on the floor. All of this belied the intensity of the battle that was to come in the next hour and a half of action.
Eugene took the opening tip but misfired on their first possession. Both teams were a bit over-primed for action and it was a minute and a half into the game before the first points of the game were scored on a Kaydi Alderman shot in the paint. Hannah Feeney immediately answered with a drive and score in the paint, and that set the tone for the game that would ensue.
Both teams applied heavy defensive pressure, and the first quarter was a hard-nosed, low-scoring affair. Eugene led 9-7 with 3:10 left in the period when Morgan Blessing drained a baseline jumper to tie it at nine apiece. With 1:22 to play in the first, Feeney flashed into the paint and was fouled. She made the back end of the pair and gave Scotland a 10-9 lead to end the quarter.
Eugene had the ball to start the second quarter. But Scotland maintained the momentum with a Feeney steal and lay-in to go up 12-9 just over a minute into the second period. The Lady Eagles were making a concerted effort to pump the ball inside to their talented and tall sophomore center Olivia Angerer, but the Lady Tigers displayed some great interior defensive work to effectively shut that down.
However, Eugene adjusted and began to connect with hot perimeter shooting. Ashlynn Kliethermes hit a top of the key 3-pointer to tie it at 12 all at the 5:40 mark of the quarter. With 5:05 to play in the half, the momentum seemed to shift to Eugene, as they began a 6-0 run over the next two minutes. The Lady Tigers pulled within three on a beautiful Kylee Stott to Feeney connection under the basket, but Katelyn Peterson had the immediate answer with a trey from the right wing to put the Lady Eagles back up by six.
The remainder of the half was a pretty even affair, but Feeney nabbed yet another steal and beautifully passed the ball ahead to Alaynna Whitaker who picked up her first pair of points in style with a layup just at the buzzer. Scotland County headed to the halftime locker room trailing 23-19, but the team and crowd had been energized by the final play of the half.
The start of the second half saw Scotland County have the ball first. But the first four minutes of the quarter resembled two heavy-weight boxers using light jabs to measure each other up for the knock-out blow. Coming out of a time-out at the 3:55 mark, Emiley Dial connected with Whitaker on the left block to pull within two points. The very next possession saw a repeat of the play only this time on the right block. Suddenly the game was knotted up at 23 apiece. The defensive struggle saw Scotland County outscore Eugene 7-5 and it was 28-26 Eugene after three quarters.
The next points didn’t come until over two minutes later when Angerer made a pair of free throws to lead 30-26. But with 4:32 to play, a spark seemed to light the fire inside of Whitaker and she began to take the game over. It began with an assist from Humphrey on the left block, then continued with a pair of made free throws after another attempt from the left block. That tied the game at 30 apiece.
A Dial free throw with 3:34 to play gave the Lady Tigers their first lead in eight minutes of play at 31- 30. But a minute later, an Angerer free throw tied it at 31-31. After a Eugene timeout, Blessing recovered an Angerer fumble and the tall sophomore fouled out trying to recover the ball.
After Alderman made a go-ahead bucket, Blessing found Whitaker on the left block and it was 33- 33 with 1:18 remaining. On the next Lady Eagle possession, Dial stole the ball. Scotland County took a timeout shortly after. Coming out of the huddle, Feeney found Whitaker on the left block again and it was 35-33 Scotland County.
Eugene called timeout and afterward they unleashed a flurry of shots at the rim, all of which missed the mark. Dial secured the rebound with four seconds remaining and was fouled. She went to the line for a one-and-one. After missing the first, she swished the second attempt giving the Lady Tigers a 36-33 lead. Eugene made one last desperate attempt for a tying 3-pointer, but it didn’t happen and the Lady Tigers erupted into tears and hugs at mid-court to celebrate their return to the state final four.
After the game, Shultz commented on the impact Whitaker had down the stretch. “She came up huge for us. She plays better when she’s mad and something happened down here on this end. She had that look on her face and she clapped her hands and was mad at herself. So I knew now was the time to take advantage of that so we ran the isolation play for her two or three times in a row and I think it worked.”
Shultz has often said that this team hangs its hat on its defense, and this game was a shining example. “We had Aayla Humphrey guarding Alderman. That girl is quick, handles the ball really, really well. And down the stretch, Aayla I think got her out of her comfort zone.” He also recognized Blessing’s defensive effort. “Maggie Stieferman has shot and made 40 3-pointers this season. You’d have to put three of our girls together to get that many. She didn’t score tonight. Morgan Blessing had that assignment most of the night. That’s a stat that nobody will see but she came up really big for us.”
Asked about his feelings about getting back to the state final four after losing in an illness-marred sectional last season, Shultz offered these thoughts. “It’s just like a breath of fresh air. I feel like we’ve been proving ourselves all year long. We were in three tournaments and weren’t the one seed in any of them. We weren’t the one seed in the district even though I thought we should have been. To be able to battle through all the adversity and the covid and the injuries and all that stuff and be in the final four- it’s a little surreal. I don’t know that it’s sunk in yet to be 100% honest.”
Whitaker led all scorers with 15 points. Feeney scored 11, Blessing 4 and Humphrey and Dial had 3 points apiece. Angerer led the Lady Eagles with 13 points.
The Lady Tigers will depart for Springfield from Scotland County R-1 at 11:15 Wednesday morning. The community is invited to line up along Highway 15 from the school to send them off. The semi-final game against Wellington-Napoleon will be at 7 pm in the John Q Hammons Arena. If they Lady Tigers win that game, they would play for the championship at 4 pm Friday in the John Q Hammons Arena. If they lose the semi-final, they would play for third place at 10 am Friday at the Hammons Student Center. Tickets may be purchased at MSHSAA.org.