Free throws were both an issue and an answer for the Houston High School girls basketball team Friday night in Hiett Gymnasium, as the Lady Tigers notched a thrilling 59-53 victory over Newburg in overtime.
After missing five straight foul shots with time running down in the fourth quarter, Houston connected on 5-of-6 free throws with less than a minute left in overtime. On the way to a 48-all tie at the end of regulation time, the lead changed hands numerous times as the two squads took turns playing stout defense and employing good ball movement to successfully execute plays on the offensive end of the floor.
“Any win is a good win, but we’re trying to figure out how to win,” said HHS head coach Jim Moore. “So when we can pull out a win in a tight ball game, especially in overtime, it builds our confidence on top of gaining all kinds of positive experience. I’m really proud of our team and the resolve we had to continue to play hard no matter what was happening. We teach a ‘next play’ mentality where we try not to dwell on what just happened so we are ready to make the play that comes our way.”
The visiting Lady Wolves led by as much as 4 when sophomore guard Annaleise Logan sank a pair of free throws with about 2:40 to go in the second quarter, and the Lady Tigers established their biggest lead of regulation time at 31-25 after sophomore guard Hannah Dzurick drained back-to-back 3-point shots midway through the third period. Houston led 23-22 at halftime.
The Lady Tigers went only 8-for-21 from the charity stripe in the game, but when the chips were down in the 4-minute OT session, junior guard Jaden Stell sank two free throws with 40 seconds left, Dzurick made 1-of-2 with 30 seconds to go and freshman guard Aliyah Walker stepped up to the line with 16 seconds remaining and sealed the deal by sinking two more.
Dzurick drilled three 3-pointers in the contest and led the Lady Tigers in scoring with a career-high 20 points. Junior forward Riley Scheets sank several crucial mid-range shots from the lane and recorded a double-double with 12 points (including 6 in the fourth quarter) and 10 rebounds, while freshman guard Karlee Curtis was active in the post on both ends of the court and added 10 points. Stell was held scoreless in regulation, but buried a huge trey to open the scoring in overtime and finished with 5 points.
Logan led the Lady Wolves in scoring with a game-high 22 points, while senior guard Grace Affolter added 15. Newburg (in Phelps County, west of Rolla south of I-44) was 6-4 coming into the game.
The youthful Lady Tigers had four underclassmen in the starting lineup, and had been plagued by poor second half performances in several recent games.
“I continue to believe it’s just a matter of gaining experience and learning how to win when we are in position to do so,” Moore said. “The more we put ourselves in those positions, the more successful we’re going to become. It’s a process, but I’m seeing more and more signs of us learning the game and learning how to finish.”
Moore said the emergence of Dzurick as a team leader is indicative of his entire team’s progression.
“Hannah is still just scraping the surface of what she can do,” he said. “Just like the rest of our team, confidence plays a huge part of her success. She played much more aggressive last night and didn’t allow a missed shot or a turnover bother her to the point that she was hesitant after that. She kept playing on both ends of the floor and made a lot of plays on both ends of the floor. Her defense was as big, if not bigger, than her offense. She had a huge defensive matchup and did a great job on the girl she was guarding.”
That progression means tougher tasks for opponents during every outing, Moore said.
“I also thought Riley played a complete ballgame last night, and she is huge for us inside,” Moore said. “And Karlee made some acrobatic shots underneath and had some huge rebounds late. We had a lot of girls make big plays in big situations, and I think we will continue to see more and more of that throughout the season.”
As a coach, you can emphasize the importance of free throws, but you can’t shoot them for the players.
“I know it’s hard to believe from how we shot free throws, but we work on free throws in every practice,” Moore said. “We will for sure re-emphasize the importance of free throws and the concentration level and repetition it takes to be good at them. Free throws is always one of our keys to winning ball games, and we will continue working on them for sure.”
The Lady Tigers (3-6) will play on the road numerous times before Ava comes to Houston on Feb. 3.
“It was nice to be back home after being on the road the last month,” Moore said. “Now we hit the road for about another month, and it’s tough. We get to missing playing at home, but the mental toughness we gain from playing on the road in tough environments is vital to our maturing process. We always want to be locked into our game plan and executing it, but on the road it’s even more of a premium that we do just that.
“We have to focus even more, and maybe the biggest learning point in the road is that we need our teammates. We need their support, their comfort and their resiliency to overcome obstacles that get in our way.”
This week, the Lady Tigers began a month-long stretch of road games with a Monday contest at Thayer, and are in the field at the inaugural six-team Bourbon Invitational tournament. Third-seeded Houston faced No. 4 Liberty Christian Academy (of Wright City) in a first round game on Tuesday.
Other squads in the field include No. 1 Crocker, No. 2 Grandview, No. 5 Bourbon and No. 6 Viburnum. The championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.