The Prairie Home Lady Panthers basketball team will be the talk of the Four Four Thursday through Saturday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
After knocking off two higher seeded teams in the district tournament and then beating their next-two opponents by one point each, the Lady Panthers will take all six of their players to the semifinal round on Thursday, where they will face Walnut Grove starting at 5 p.m.
Prairie Home coach Dalton Armontrout said he is still kind of in shock from not being the favorite to win the conference to now. He said it seems surreal.
With the fewest wins of any team in the tournament in Class 1 at 22-8, Armontrout said according to mosports poll, Prairie Home is also the least favorite of the four with one vote. But that’s nothing new for the Lady Panthers, he said.
“We have been counted out in every game we played this year,” Armontrout said. “We are going to play hard as we can for 32 minutes and whatever happens, happens. I think the favorite is Mercer. I know they return everybody as well, so there should be some good games on Thursday.”
Of course Walnut Grove will be no slouch. At 27-4 on the season, Armontrout said the Lady Tigers are traditionally very good. He said Walnut Grove has been there the past four years and won it a few years ago.
“Some of those same girls might be on the team now and are usually regulars on the Final Four on both sides,” Armontrout said. “They have two all staters and return everybody else from last year’s team. They also have experience. This will be a tough challenge, but we are excited about it.”
Just for the record, the Lady Panthers also boist two pretty good players in seniors Shianne Rhorer and Rachel Distler. While both are four-years starters, Rhorer averages right at 25 ppg along with 11.4 rpg while shooting 61 percent from the field and 70 percent from the foul line. As for Distler, the senior guard is also averaging 23.6 ppg along with 6.4 rpg. She is also shooting a balmy 42 percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point arc and 78 percent from the foul line.
While it’s no secret that Rhorer and Distler are the team’s main threats, Armontrout also looks for a little scoring from senior Elizabeth Fairchild, juniors Kristen Peterson and Kurstin Leonard and freshman Ashlyn Twenter. Peterson is averaging 7.9 ppg while Twenter comes in at 2.6 ppg, Leonard 2.1 ppg and Fairchild at 2.0 ppg.
“We talked about it before the season that everyone has to do their part,” Armontrout said. “That doesn’t mean you need to score points. That means get some deflections, rebounds, steals, and assists. We will need to do all the little things right in these two games. We’ll need to box out, make good passes, get some deflections, dive for loose balls, hit some tough shots and make free throws. We cannot turn the ball over. We have to hold their all-state players in check. They cannot get their usual 20 ppg. We have to know where they are at all times.”
But even then its a matter of stopping their best two players. While averaging 59.1 ppg as a team during the season, Bayley Harman leads the Lady Tigers at 23.9 ppg along with 5.8 rpg while Raylie Hejina comes in at 16.6 ppg and 7.6 rpg. Grace McPhail is also a threat for Walnut Grove at 8.8 ppg.
Armontrout said playing in front of a big crowd will also be something new for the girls.
“We have played in front of big crowds before, but nothing like what we will see on Thursday,” Armontrout said. “I can tell them it’s just another game, but it’s not. I would be lying to them. This is one of the biggest games they will ever play in, but I want them to enjoy the experience and enjoy everything that comes with it, but also stay focused because we have basketball games to play.”
Armontrout also feels like the schedule during the regular season has prepared the Lady Panthers for the Final Four.
“I loaded the schedule on both sides,” Armontrout said. “We played bigger Class 3 schools like Hallsville and South Callaway and some good Class 2 teams like Sturgeon, Calvary Lutheran and Salisbury. Then we get to districts and we are the No. 4 seed. Our district was tough because you play Higbee again, which I didn’t want to see again, then Glasgow who returned almost everyone from last year’s Final Four and then a good St. Elizabeth team.”
While some have already labeled the Lady Panthers as the cardiac kids because of their narrow wins in their last four games, Armontrout said he saw the turnaround in the team at districts.
“We beat Higbee and Rachel and Shianne had their normal 25 point games and then we played Glasgow and I knew they were going to give us a triangle and two like every team has done against us,” Armontrout said. “My freshman stepped up and got 10 points along the baseline and Peterson hit a huge three. In the district championship, everyone contributed. Liz had four points, Kurstin had two and Ashlyn two and Kristen had five and then from then on everyone kept doing their part.”
Armontrout said the girls have made it special this year. He said everyone of them has improved and everyone of them has stepped up. We have come a long way. It has been great to see the girls get rewarded for all their hard work throughout the summer and basketball season.”
Of course it’s also been special to Armontrout because getting to the Final Four is something he has been wanting for a long time. “I’m excited that I could do it at Prairie Home,” Armontrout said. “The girls deserve it.”