JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Even when the score indicates there was a close game, it seems like No. 22 Three Rivers is still winning comfortably.
Friday was no different. Top-seeded Three Rivers defeated fourth-seeded Crowder 88-79 in the Region XVI Tournament semifinals, but the margin felt wider.
"This time of year, you don't beat people by 20," Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. "If they're playing this time of year, they're pretty good. A lot of emotions, a lot of nervous energy. They were nervous as cats on a hot tin roof when they came out. But once we kind of got going, we've just got to go play."
The Lady Raiders (25-3) were never really in any danger of losing the lead they'd held since under four minutes remained in the second quarter.
Crowder (13-19) had tied the game at 24 after Hannah Thurmon blocked a shot and it deflected right to Maegan Bandimere for a layup.
Then, the sophomores showed their leadership, pulling Three Rivers ahead for good. Kim Shaw found an open look after driving the baseline and flicked it home to give the Lady Raiders the lead again, and they wouldn't relinquish it for the rest of the game. Shaw finished with a quiet 18 points and eight rebounds, a line Walk almost couldn't believe.
"What? Kim was 7-of-10 from two," Walk said. "Wow. Where'd that come from? She's that unsung hero, and she's been that all year long. Super sweet kid. She's a player. … I can't say enough for her. She just works her (butt) off every day in practice and has a smile on her face."
Right after the basket, Hailee Erickson snuck in for a steal and a layup on the inbounds pass. The Lady Raiders were rolling after the 10-second sequence. They came up with a stop on defense, and the ball found its way to Erickson again. She pulled a quick 3-pointer with no hesitation and drained it with three minutes to go in the half. Erickson, the team's leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, scored 14 points and had five assists in 36 minutes.
After the defense forced one of its 18 turnovers, Shaw again found space to drive to the basket for two more.
"I think I just started attacking the basket more and not being afraid to take it myself, and it started working out for me, I guess," Shaw said.
"It's what I've told them all year long, you get them in a feeding frenzy. They kind of came back on us there and tied the game at 24-all like you said, and they kind of relax. 'Well, we've got caught up.' And next thing you know, they've thrown the ball back to us four or five more times," Walk said. "... That's the difference in the ball game."
J'Kayla Fowler played for the first time since Feb. 6 after an ankle injury sidelined her for four games. She scored two points in six minutes but quickly showed why her length was missed at the top of Three Rivers' zone defense. On her first possession back on the court she tipped a pass out of bounds before coming up with a steal shortly after.
"Just working her back in slowly," Walk said. "They were good quality minutes. She scored two points, got a couple of rebounds. Those are confidence boosters for her to get back in the swing of things. She just brings that other dimension that we've all kind of forgot about."
It was another game of balance for the Lady Raiders. Everyone who played scored at least two points, and Deanay Watson (12) and Katelyn South (13) joined Thurmon, Shaw and Erickson as double-figure scorers for the No. 1 seed.
Three Rivers will play Moberly Area in the championship at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Erickson split a pair at the line before the team's third sophomore, Casey Douglas, found Thurmon with a nice pass for a layup with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Thurmon tallied 15 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes for her first collegiate double-double. She also added seven blocks for a season-high.
"I just knew I had to contribute and play one of my hardest games," Thurmon said. "Other times are watching and they're trying to feed off of everything that happens."
Crowder answered with a 3, but Erickson quickly dribbled down and splashed a 3 at the buzzer, putting Three Rivers up by double figures and heading into the locker room with a ton of confidence.
"It really was a big part, to close out the half scoring, getting turnovers, and I feel like everyone feeds off the energy when you start to steal the ball and score off of it," Shaw said.
That 17-5 run to finish the half was the biggest stretch of the game. Crowder pulled within seven points once in the third quarter, but Three Rivers never seemed like it was in any real danger of losing its lead.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic