Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
Also published in the St. Joseph News-Press
The beginning of the State Farm Holiday Hoops Invitational championship game had the makings of a neck-and-neck thriller.
St. Joseph Benton and Hickman shared blows, with the Lady Cardinals jumping out to an early lead and the Kewpies bouncing back before Benton regained a one-point edge at the start of the second quarter.
And then came the run.
In a four-minute stretch during which Benton coach Brett Goodwin said his team “completely lost it mentally,” the Lady Cardinals turned the ball over on nine of 10 possessions, and the Kewpies scored 15 straight points.
The gap ultimately proved the difference, as Hickman defeated Benton 65-59 Monday night at Rackers Fieldhouse for its second straight championship at the invitational.
“We had to spend a lot of energy to get ourselves back within striking distance,” Goodwin said.
Ny’jay White scored 12 of the 15 points during the run, and the Lady Cardinals struggled to stop the 5-foot-9 Hickman sophomore in the paint.
White finished with 16 points, four behind leading scorer and tournament MVP Emily Miller. Mikayla Logan scored 11 points for Hickman, and Storm scored nine.
“Obviously Emily Miller is our primary scorer, but we had some other kids really step up tonight,” Hickman coach Tonya Mirts said. “… The one thing I didn’t think they’d have an answer for was Ny’Jah, Mikayla or Katie. We had to have the confidence to throw it to them, and I thought we did.”
Benton responded with an 8-2 run of its own to head into halftime down eight.
The Lady Cardinals got within four points in the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Hickman held them off, thanks in part to a 24-of-26 performance from the free-throw line.
Mirts said she knew the Kewpies would have to avoid overcommitting on Benton guard Daejah Bernard’s drives and leaving other guards open.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “Naturally with a kid, when there’s penetration, they’re always taught to help and recover. That’s drilled into them. That’s muscle memory. And we’re like, ‘Don’t come off.’ … Fortunately for us, we had a big enough lead, and we were able to pound it inside, and they didn’t have an answer for that.”
Goodwin thought the Lady Cardinals played well defensively. In fact, he said they might have followed the game plan too well.
“Because they knew exactly where we would be at,” Goodwin said, “and with our lack of size, and knowing where we were at, they were able to catch a ball and immediately throw it to where we’re not.”
The Lady Cardinals’ strong guard play showed on the perimeter, as Benton sunk 10 3-pointers on the night. Mallory McAndrews had five of them, and she finished with a team-high 16 points. Kylee Williams made four 3s and also had 16 points. Bernard scored 15, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter.
Benton (7-1) finished third in last year’s tournament, falling to Hickman in the semifinal round.
“We’re not going to play too many teams to their caliber in our Class 4 level, so that’s the type of team that’s going to make us better,” Goodwin said. “… We knew coming into this game we were in for a tall order. We’re a smart enough ballclub to know the benefit of playing a game like this and what it’s going to do to us down the road.”
McAndrews and Bernard received all-tournament honors for Benton, and White and Logan were named all-tournament for the Kewpies.
Hickman (9-2) is the third school to repeat as champions in the Invitational. Jefferson City High School repeated in 1996, 2003 and 2004, and Helias repeated in 2000 and 2001.
“I don’t think anybody counted on us this time around with us graduating the seniors that we did last year,” Mirts said. “We’re playing a lot of young kids, and they’re just simply playing terrific together, and that’s fun to see.”