Lady Bulldogs will make fourth appearance in Show-Me Showdown I
After reaching the quarterfinal round of the state tournament three years in a row, the Neelyville Lady Tigers basketball team finally got it right over the weekend by knocking off Clopton 46-32.
While making their first trip to the Final Four, the Lady Tigers will be facing a team in the New Franklin Lady Bulldogs that have a history of reaching the Big Dance after finishing third just two years prior in 2014.
Tip off for the New Franklin-Neelyville game is scheduled for Thursday, March 10th at Mizzou Arena in Columbia at 6:40 p.m.
While making their fourth semifinal appearance in program history, New Franklin head coach Ryan Lyons said he honestly didn’t think any member of the team, coaching staff, or school district expected them to be in the Final Four this season.
“Don’t get me wrong, I knew we’d be successful on some level, but with only one senior and such a young and inexperienced group returning, what is happening is really like living out a dream,” Lyons said. “But I’m a big believer that you can’t be a great competitor and be completely realistic. You have to believe every time you step on the court that you can beat your opponent.”
At 22-7 on the season, the Lady Bulldogs have definitely peaked at the right time. Winners of five straight, New Franklin may have very well started its climb to the top during the month of February by winning 8 of 10 games. In fact, the Lady Bulldogs last loss came back on February 16th against the Cairo Lady Bearcats 59-28.
Since then, New Franklin has won five straight by beating both Sweet Springs and Harrisburg in the district tournament 54-46 and 46-39, respectively. Meanwhile, in the sectional round of the state playoffs, the Lady Bulldogs rallied past the Iberia Rangers 59-41. Then, in the quarterfinals last Saturday at Moberly Area Community College, junior Cassie Armentrout hit a three-pointer with 29 seconds left to lead New Franklin past Scotland County 36-34.
Lyons said he felt the Lady Bulldogs could beat Iberia even though they had more experienced, more renowned guard play.
“I think the stats showed that to be true,” Lyons said. “We gained a ton of confidence after that almost 20 point win. The game versus Scotland County was a much more difficult test for us, and frankly one I don’t think too many people thought we could pass. Down seven points with under three minutes to play and then out of nowhere a three-pointer from Cassie, then a three-pointer from Grace, and another one from Cassie all happened so fast I felt like was having an out-of-body experience. When the buzzer went off and the long three from Scotland County fell short I couldn’t even believe that we were actually headed to the Mizzou Arena. Watching my girls celebrate, laugh and cry and hug, was the best moment of the season for me. I always wanted to go where they are going (as did my assistant Morgan Vetter) when I played years ago and now I get to hold on to their shirttails and experience it in a different way.”
Lyons said the Lady Bulldogs opponent is talented and confidence.
Like New Franklin, the Lady Tigers (25-4) will enter Thursday’s game on a winning streak having won their last 11 games. The only difference is that Neelyville’s last loss came back on January 25th against Class 3 Saxony Lutheran (who is in the Final Four) 58-39.
Thursday’s game will also mark the first Final Four appearance for Neelyville head coach Becky Hale, who is 284-125 at her alma mater.
Lyons said it looks like Neelyville wants to play a fast paced game. “They have several good shooters and defenders,” Lyons said.
With three returning starters from last year, the Lady Tigers will also put four players on the floor averaging double figures this season. Shelby Moon, a 5’-6” senior, leads the team with 11.1 ppg along with 108 assists. Moon is also shooting .44 percent from the three-point arc and 83 percent from the foul line.
Freshman Jentri Worley, who is listed at 5’-7”, is currently averaging 10.4 ppg with 105 assists. Sophomore J’Kayla Fowler, meanwhile, is averaging 10.1 ppg along with 7.1 rpg while shooting 61 percent from the field while 5’-11” senior Riley Washburn is averaging right at 10.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg.
As for the New Franklin Lady Bulldogs, Madison Matney, a 5’-9” sophomore, is the only player in double figures and the team leader in both scoring (10.8 ppg) and rebounds (7.4 rpg).
Lyons said no matter how the team does this week, he is beyond proud of the girls.
“It has been an incredibly enjoyable season,” Lyons said. “My girls are young and their skill level will rise. But what they do have is a will to compete and win like no other group of athletes I’ve been around. As long as they never lose this, they will only get better in time. I’m excited to see them mature and have continued success.”
Which brings us to the Lady Bulldogs motto this season. With only one player back from the Final Four team in 2014, Lyons said the pre-game chant all season has been “Win together, lose together”. He said this is a reminder of the commitment the girls made to each other following their rough time in December.
“We had a bit of disunity in December, discussed it, high-fived each other and moved forward,” Lyons said. “A few other bumps in the road after Christmas, but again handled them with maturity and unity and moved on. The lowest point of the season was the embarrassing home loss on Homecoming night to Cairo by 30. I don’t know what happened, my girls didn’t know what happened, but I believe it become the ashes from which we had the opportunity to rise. Honestly, after about a week following this low point, my girls have been playing with more confidence, unselfishness, toughness, and joy than I’ve ever seen. I guess it truly is how we respond to failure that determines our future success.”
The Lady Bulldogs have had both throughout the 2015-16 season but are now living a dream come true.