Mizzou won't be the only Tigers in Columbia this week. The Exeter Lady Tigers stamped their ticket to the MSHSAA Class 1 Show-Me Showdown with wins over South Iron and Naylor and return to Columbia for the second time since 2009.
A big second half carried Exeter past South Iron at the West Plains Civic Center on Tuesday night and vaulted the Lady Tigers into the Class 1 girls basketball quarterfinals. Exeter, ahead by only 33-27 at the half, applied a 40-17 stranglehold on the Lady Panthers in the final two quarters to earn a trip to Poplar Bluff on Saturday and a 2:45 p.m. date with Naylor at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff.
For the second consecutive playoff game, Exeter was led in scoring by Chelbie Kern. The 5'7" senior scored 18 points against South Iron after notching 14 against Chadwick. Three other Lady Tigers reached double figures. Destani Stensrud scored 16, while Breanna Varner and Ashton Scott scored 13 and 12 respectively.
The Naylor Lady Eagles were a mystery going into Saturday's quarterfinal match. Playing in the Class 1 wasteland of the Missouri boothill, Naylor had only played three schools of comparable size all year. In fact, Naylor enjoyed a walkover in the Class 1 District 1 girls basketball tournament. None of the other six schools in the district has fielded a girls basketball team in several years.
Throw in the fact that Naylor is just minutes from Poplar Bluff compared to the width-of-the-state road trip required of Exeter, and you understand why Jason Cole was a bit nervous about this game.
"There's no doubt they play a tough schedule. We expect a tough game," said Cole.
Naylor provided the tough test Cole expected, but Exeter prevailed, 48-43.
Two of the state's best seniors in Class 1, Exeter's Destani Stensrud and Naylor's Holly Deckard, tied for high-point honors with 23 each. Abbey Scott also reached double figures for the Lady Tigers with 10.
Exeter trailed after one period, 18-11. But Cole's girls battled and scraped their way back, and Naylor's lead after three quarters was just a deuce at 36-34. After two games of being the assists leader, Stensrud shouldered the scoring burden and kept her team in the hunt.
Exeter's first lead of the second half came with just three minutes remaining, and the Tigers moved in front for good in the final minute and a half. The Lady Tigers finished with a 14-7 fourth quarter flurry to secure the 48-43 victory.
"Not one of our better games," said Cole later. "We struggled at both ends of the floor."
Naylor finishes the season at 17-9, while Exeter improves to 23-8. By winning Saturday's quarterfinal, Exeter prevented a repeat of last year's Class 1 Final Four team line-up. In 2010, Naylor joined Jefferson, Marion County and eventual champion Montrose in Columbia.
The Lady Tigers will play the Jefferson Lady Eagles at 3:20 p.m. in a Class 1 semifinal game on Thursday in Mizzou Arena. The only remaining unbeaten schools in Class 1, the defending champion Montrose Lady Blue Jays (27-0), and the Marion County Lady Mustangs (28-0), will clash in the other semifinal at 5 p.m.