LADY TIGERS ARE STATE CHAMPS
The Exeter Lady Tigers won the first MSHSAA championship for their school in any girls sport with their 56-31 victory over Marion County on Saturday.
The little Barry County town can now be known as the home of the only Ozark 7 Conference school with state championships in both boys and girls basketball, although it took 46 years for the girls to provide the opposing bookend to the boys state title from 1963.
The Exeter Lady Tigers took the court at Mizzou Arena for their date with destiny on Saturday afternoon, confident in their scoring ability and certain that their defense could contain and control Marion County.
The Lady Mustangs believed in their own karma and had every confidence that their inside/outside combination of Morgan Spratt and Jessica Redd could hold their own against the Lady Tigers and their super duo of Whitney Edie and Destani Stensrud.
When you are playing for destiny, it never hurts to have a Destani. Exeter's energizer-bunny of a point guard sparked the Lady Tigers with her 16-point performance in the semifinal win over Jefferson. What Exeter needed most in the championship game was balance. You had to know that Marion County would try to contain Edie and Stensrud and force the other Lady Tigers to take the shots.
Another key was how Redd would hold up in the paint against Edie. Although she matched Edie in height at 6'1", the freshman Redd's lithe frame did not compare to Edie's older and stronger physique.
Lastly, could Marion County score against Exeter's vaunted defense? The Lady Tigers have dominated with their backs to the basket and have shown the ability to hold even good teams to quarters of 5 or less points. Coach Jason Cole emphasizes defense, and his team morphs effortlessly from one set to another. Full court traps, man-to-man, a variety of zones, Exeter plays and executes them all well.
With the teams finally face to face on the court, Exeter broke on top as Edie missed a short jumper, snared her own miss and scored after only 16 seconds.
Jordan Johnson tied it for Marion County, but Katie Chadd notched a short jumper to regain the lead for the Lady Tigers. Chadd scored a measly 4 points in the Exeter semifinal win over Jefferson and likely was barely noticed in the Marion County game prep films.
Randi Lee Plunkett scored to produce the second -- and last -- tie of the game. At game's end, looking back at the way the contest turned, Marion County had to be shocked to realize that Exeter had them beaten when Edie scored her second basket for a 6-4 Lady Tiger lead with 5:49 remaining in the first period.
Following the 4-4 tie, Exeter went on a 9-0 tear. Actually, Edie went on the tear, but Exeter benefitted from her four baskets. Including one three-pointer, which produced the 13-4 lead. Edie then committed her first foul of the game, and Redd thanked her by hitting both free throws.
The Lady Tigers led 15-9 at the first break, with Edie accounting for 11 of those points. Ashton Scott equaled Chadd in the scoring column with her basket late in the frame.
For the Lady Mustangs, the second quarter was deja' vu all over again. Exeter outscored Marion County 15-9 again and owned a 30-18 halftime lead. Edie scored 3 more points, but Chadd poured in 6 more, and her halftime total doubled her entire production against Jefferson.
The Lady Mustangs could not find any offensive continuity against Cole's defensive scheme. The Lady Tigers went seamlessly from one defensive scheme to another as the game progressed, and Marion County players were constantly confused and bedeviled by the defensive looks Exeter gave them.
Redd, the prize freshman center, managed only 4 points in the first half, and Spratt was shut out by the superb work of Exeter's guards. Ranay Sharp led the ponies in scoring at halftime with her 8 points, with four of those on free throws.
For Redd, the first half was a learning experience, and Edie ruthlessly taught her "Post Play:101,"
"She's good for a freshman," Edie said after the game. "But I'm faster, and I have more experience. I tried to draw her out so I could go around her."
Edie's 14 half-time points testified to the degree of her success. Exeter led by as many as 13 in the second quarter, before heading to the locker room with the 12-point lead.
After the teams sparred scoreless for almost two minutes, Chadd scored the first points of the third quarter with her lay-up at the 6:20 mark. Edie crushed Jordan Johnson's attempted layup with a D-1 block seconds later, and the Lady Tigers rolled to an 11-4 run that included seven free throws from Edie's confident hands.
Exeter led 41-26 after three periods of play. The question was no longer "Would they win?", but rather "By how much would they win?"
Redd finally broke loose and scored 6 in the third period, but her team only had 8. Jordan Johnson supplied the other deuce just :09 before the last break.
Stensrud scored 8 of her 12 points in the final quarter to seal the state title for the Lady Tigers. Marion County suffered through a fourth consecutive quarter of offensive frustration, managing only 5 points in the final 8:00.
Exeter executed the classic stall to help seal the win and prevent any late Lady Mustang heroics. For much of the period, Edie and Company ran a three-girl weave near half court as the clock hurried toward history.
Stensrud's jumper at 4:01 produced the first 20-plus lead of the game at 49-28. Redd scored and drew a needless foul on Abbey Scott. The freshman center completed the three-point play, but Marion County still trailed, 49-31 with 3:38 to play.
Stensrud hit a pair of free throws, and Kasie Scott added one to reach 52-31 with barely a minute and a half remaining.
Edie hit the final shot of her high school career with her soon-to-be college coach, Nyla Milleson, of Missouri State, watching intently from the stands, and Exeter led 54-31 with only :52 left to play.
Both coaches cleared their benches, and Exeter's Ashton Scott found a shooting lane open and banked one home to complete the scoring. The Lady Tigers won 56-31.
While the offense gets the most attention, defense wins championships. That's true of every sport at every level, and Exeter pounded the axiom home to their opponents in Columbia.
In the eight quarters of their two games in Mizzou Arena, the Lady Tigers held their opponents under 10 points in six of those periods. Jefferson scored exactly 10 points in the other two quarters. Three times, Exeter limited their opponents to only 5 points in a quarter. That's amazing work in a sport where so much emphasis is spent on designing intricate scoring plays.
Edie led all scorers with 25 points, and she collected 7 rebounds. Stensrud came alive in the second half to score 12, and Chadd finished her high school career with 10 points and five boards. Jessica Redd scored 15 for the Lady Mustangs, and Sharp added 8. A shocking statistic that summed up Marion County's offensive woes: Morgan Spratt was held scoreless for the game.
Coach Jason Cole was humble in victory, and his prepared remarks were simply a tribute to his players.
"I can't say enough about the effort these kids have put in to get to this point," emphasized Cole at the postgame press conference. "This is the reason why you put in the time it takes to be successful. Not many people get an opportunity to play for a state championship," he said, flanked by his three seniors, Kasie Scott, Whitney Edie and Katie Chadd.
Of the drive for the championship, after bowing out in the quarterfinals a year ago, Scott said, "We didn't want to talk about it too much, we didn't want to jinx it."
Chadd's smile said it before she did: "This is the best way to end your senior year."