JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Mineral Area women began their basketball season with great uncertainty, and not much had changed heading into the second week of February.
The Lady Cardinals were mired in a nagging slump – losing eight of 11 games – and time for a hopeful turnaround was rapidly dwindling for a team still trying to establish its identity.
“We have been baffled by this team all year,” 12th-year Mineral Area head coach Gary Koch said. “How many different lineups have we sent out there trying to figure this thing out?”
Those struggles seemed like a distant memory on Saturday night when Mineral Area capped an inspired week by eliminating three higher seeds and winning its second Region 16 championship in program history.
Defense and rebounding keyed a dominant closing stretch as the fifth-seeded Lady Cardinals defeated Crowder 65-51 in the tournament final at Lincoln University.
Point guard Hayley Winter recorded her eighth double-double of the season with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and also dished out six assists in 39 minutes.
She was the lone returning starter and one of four current MAC sophomores who suffered a crushing overtime loss to State Fair in last year’s championship game.
“I ended up having the same response. I just started crying like I did last year,” Winter said. “I feel so much better now that we actually got the win this time.”
Mineral Area pulled away with a 12-0 run that spanned more than six minutes after Crowder had drawn within 53-49 as Nicole Ickes made a layup off an inbounds play with 6:24 remaining.
The third-seeded Lady ‘Riders missed their next nine shots, and committed three costly turnovers as the Lady Cardinals calmly seized control.
Allie Golden banked in a difficult shot after Olivia White swatted one at the opposite end, then buried a baseline jumper on the next MAC possession.
Winter pushed the margin to double digits by draining a soft runner, and White added two subsequent baskets for a safe 63-49 advantage.
White tallied 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, and was equally forceful on the defensive end while scoring seven of her nine field goals after halftime.
The 6-foot-4 center was a standout on Tuesday in a first-round road win at Moberly, then responded mightily following a quiet showing in the semifinal round.
“It was a challenge for me to bounce back tonight after what happened yesterday,” White said. “I had to put all of my effort into helping this team get to where we’re supposed to be.”
“After our previous games, we’ve talked about what we needed to do better,” she added. “But then we erased the past and took things step by step.”
Crowder beat Mineral Area twice during the regular season, but could not complete a necessary sweep after shooting just 3-of-20 from 3-point range.
Golden finished with 13 points, including a timely putback moments after Michaela Mack used a brilliant stop-and-go drive for a 3-point play to bring Crowder within 49-45.
Olivia Casey supplied seven points plus eight rebounds, and Shelby Moon made five assists as the Lady Cards navigated the second half with only three turnovers.
“Before the game we talked about three things: To play defense, to finish the defense with rebounds – which we hadn’t been doing – and then to cut down the offensive mistakes,” Koch said.
Mineral Area (16-15) earned its fifth victory in six games, including two over region frontrunner Three Rivers, and will host Iowa Western (23-8) on Friday with an NJCAA tournament bid at stake.
“I think our home win against Three Rivers really convinced us that we could play as a team,” Winter said. “From that point on, things started to go our way and turn positive.”
Kadesha Cooper scored 11 points while Zahria White notched 10 and Mack had nine for Crowder, which used an 11-3 run to take a 13-12 lead on a second driving layup by Brooke Sagely.
Olivia White saw her first action as the second quarter began, and quickly gathered five rebounds while MAC shut out its opposition for five minutes.
Khiandra Perry followed her own miss to restore an 8-point Mineral Area lead in the second quarter, and Winter made it 28-21 on a 3-pointer.
Crowder (12-21) rallied to within 38-36 on a deep triple by Cooper, but never got closer from there as Olivia White nailed a turn-around jumper on the ensuing possession.
“Limiting them to one shot was our main goal of the whole game, really, because they are such a strong rebounding team,” said Winter, who was a repeat First Team all-region selection. “It was important that we were able to do that.”
The Lady Cardinals opened the contest with a 7-0 spurt that included a Casey 3-pointer from the corner, and made 10-of-12 free throws overall.