PARK HILLS – One of the only sure things entering the Mineral Area women’s basketball season last November was the status of sophomore Hayley Winter as an undisputed leader.
Veteran head coach Gary Koch suspected that his all-region point guard might be called upon to play all 40 minutes of action on any given night as the team’s lone returning starter.
But the recent emergence of much-needed depth and confidence has elevated the Lady Cardinals to the cusp of an unprecedented program achievement.
Mineral Area (16-15) stands one victory from its first NJCAA tournament berth following an improbable run to the Region 16 championship as the fifth seed.
Any comfort advantage helps in a winner-take-all situation, and the Lady Cardinals will have the luxury of hosting Iowa Western (23-8) in the District K playoff game on Friday at 6 p.m.
Mineral Area has won five of six games to turn around an otherwise inconsistent campaign. Arguably its most impressive win of the Region 16 tourney came during the first round at Moberly.
That result was followed by a double-digit comeback and triumph over top seed Three Rivers that saw freshmen Khiandra Perry and Allie Golden score their respective season highs.
Winter recorded her eighth double-double, and freshman center Olivia White ignited for 14 of her 18 points in the second half while clutch defense powered MAC past Crowder in the region final.
Rebounding and scoring balance could be paramount in securing a historic automatic NJCAA bid that slipped away two years ago in an overtime loss to Iowa Western.
Winter paces the Lady Cardinals by averaging 13.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 76 percent from the line. She ranks fourth nationally in assists per game.
Iowa Western generated an urgent 14-3 run in the fourth quarter Saturday to overtake Northeast (Neb.) 74-69 and capture the Region 11 crown.
The Lady Reivers have dropped six previous road games this season, and were also defeated at home by the same Jefferson squad that Mineral Area has topped twice.
IWCC operates with a deep rotation. Five players average between 7.3 points and the 9.5 by sophomore forward and leading scorer Lade Adepoju.
Its second semester began with a 6-game win streak that included a 16-point road decision at Crowder.