The Lady Raiders are headed to the national tournament for the first time in 15 years.
In front of a packed, raucous crowd at the Libla Family Sports Complex, No. 22 Three Rivers pulled away from Iowa Western with tenacious defense and fast-paced play for a 77-59 win in the District K Playoff.
The win clinches a berth in the national tournament, which will be held in Lubbock, Texas, from March 18-23.
"Words can't explain it," Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. "I'm so proud of the kids, the tenacity and just the will to win. I felt like in the second quarter, (Iowa Western) was getting tired. I knew it was just a matter of time."
With about a minute and a half left, the reality set in, and Walk started pumping up the crowd and handing out high-fives to the whole bench. Once the clock expired, the Lady Raiders all embraced and the student section stormed the court, elated by the accomplishment.
"Honestly, I don't even know what to think right now," said Hailee Erickson, who finished with 14 points. "Whenever there was about a minute and 55 seconds on the clock, I almost started getting a little emotional, you know, all the excitement kicking in. This right here is once in a lifetime. I'm excited, and I can't wait to see what we do down in Texas."
Friday's win is the 20th in a row for Three Rivers (27-3), which hasn't lost since Nov. 30. Iowa Western (23-9) had won 15 of its last 16 games, but Three Rivers kept wearing it down throughout the night.
"It feels so good," Deanay Watson said. "I'm just so proud of not only myself but my team as well. We've came so far, and it's just a good feeling. I'm so excited."
The tempo picked up in the third quarter, and it suited the Lady Raiders perfectly with how they've played all season long. The intensity on the defensive end picked up, and it weared on the Reivers. Back-to-back steals gave the Lady Raiders the first double-figure lead of the night for either team.
"We've talked about that feeding frenzy. Kind of like blood in the water with a bunch of sharks," Walk said. "The ball got loose down there a couple of times. Next thing you know, we've got three kids going down there and scoring. Then, they kind of got on their heels.
"Just so proud of the girls. I mean, they bust their (butt)."
Three Rivers finished the night with 21 points off turnovers on 13 steals. Shaw tallied four of those steals to go along with her 11 points, four assists and four rebounds on 4 of 4 shooting in 32 minutes.
After Erickson stole the ball and threw an outlet pass to J'Kayla Fowler, Fowler laid it up to give the Lady Raiders a 57-47 lead with around a minute to go in the third quarter.
That lead kept growing in the fourth. Kim Shaw came up with a steal, and Katelyn South took the ball right into the chest of the defense for an and-one. Shaw was fouled on the next possession, knocking down a pair from the stripe.
The lead reached as many as 20 points in the fourth as Three Rivers held Iowa Western scoreless for the first four minutes of the final frame. Overall, Iowa Western shot 37.5 percent from the floor and 20 percent from 3.
"We knew what we had to do to win. We knew we had to pick up our defense and that they were going to come out firing when they're down," Erickson said. "Coach Walk said no, we've gotta get up and pressure them. We can't let them breathe."
The Lady Raiders kept up the pressure against an ice-cold Reivers offense. They forced another turnover, and Jordan Little buried a long 3 on the wing to put them up by 15 with 8:25 left.
It took Iowa Western over four minutes to score its first basket of the fourth quarter as the Lady Raiders' tempo tired out the visitors. Meanwhile, Three Rivers built its lead to 20 points.
Three Rivers trailed by as many as five points in the second quarter before ending the first half on a 13-4 run to take a six-point lead into the break. Watson stepped up big during the run, knocking down her first 3 of the season from the top of the key after the defense sagged off of her.
"(Walk) kept telling me, 'Deanay, you've got it.' So I'm like, OK, and I was open and I shot it and I made it, and It felt really good because that was my first 3 I'd made all season. I was just like, wow. And then I had to get back on defense, so I ain't really celebrate that much, but it was good," Watson said.
The 3 is something Watson has worked on in practice all season, but playing primarily in the interior on offense, it was something she hadn't needed to utilize until now. She'd attempted two 3-pointers in the team's 29 previous games, missing both, so the defense didn't see her jumper coming.
"I told (co-head coach Alex) Wiggs a week ago, they're not going to guard her," Walk said. "She shot two 3's all year, hadn't made one. And she's been knocking 3's down all the way through the last month of practice. So I told her, I took her out and I said hit the high post and flow out to the 3-point line, I said, 'We don't need to save these for the summer. Shoot it.'
"It's one of those moments where the defensive player looks at the coach and says, now what the (heck) do I do? She becomes unguardable."
Watson tied South for the team lead in points with 15, adding five rebounds and two steals in 21 minutes.
Shaw sparked the run before Watson's 3 with a cut to the basket for a wide-open layup courtesy of a pass from Hannah Thurmon.
Watson followed up her trey with a mid-range jumper from above the elbow, stretching her range at the perfect time.
Little got it done on the defensive end with a steal, and Thurmon kept the momentum on the Lady Raiders' side when she banked in a 3 to put Three Rivers up six points, its largest lead to that point.
Noti continued to get it done from the post, though, scoring a layup to stem the tide. Little scored a wide-open five-footer off a pass from Casey Douglas to put Three Rivers up six at the break. Then, the Lady Raiders upped the intensity to pull away and punch their ticket to nationals in front of the largest crowd the Libla Family Sports Complex has seen.
"I tell people that we have great basketball in southeast Missouri, we've got better fans," Walk said. "They cheered us on tonight. That sixth man made a difference tonight."
Three Rivers will find out its seeding and opponent during Monday afternoon's online selection show.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic