Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
That, along with “terrible,” was the way Tipton girls basketball coach Jason Culpepper described the Lady Cardinals’ first quarter Wednesday at Fleming Fieldhouse. But at the end of the night, only one word mattered for Tipton.
“Huge,” Culpepper said. “It was something I told them before the game. I said, ‘You guys have a chance to do something that nobody at Tipton’s done since 1964.”
That was the last time a Tipton basketball team reached the state quarterfinals. A girls team had never done it. With the help of a third-quarter surge and a 14-point fourth quarter from junior Destiny Dowell, the Lady Cardinals overcame an ice-cold first quarter to defeat Sweet Springs 47-37 for a Class 2 sectional win.
“You can’t hide it,” Culpepper said. “‘It’s a big deal,’ I said (to the team), ‘but you guys have worked hard. You guys have earned this to get to this point.’ And you know, luckily for us, we survived that first quarter.”
The Lady Cardinals missed their first six shots from the floor and didn’t hit a field goal until 5:41 into the game. Senior forward Ashton Pace hit the shot to help Tipton begin its climb out of a 9-1 hole. The Lady Cardinals scored the only remaining field goal of the quarter, a running bank shot from Dowell as time expired to enter the second quarter down 9-5 after a 2-of-11 shooting effort.
“We rebounded just good enough to keep us in the game,” Culpepper said.
The teams matched each other in the second quarter with eight points apiece, and the Lady Greyhounds entered halftime up 17-13.
“Now we survive,” Culpepper told his team. “… I told them, I said, ‘We’ve got to come out with more intensity, really pressure the basketball with the double team. Take a few risks.’”
The Lady Cardinals had already forced 15 turnovers in the first half, but Tipton began to make good use of them in the third quarter. Tipton sprung a 16-2 run on Sweet Springs to take its first lead of the game, with 12 of those points coming off turnovers. Pace and sophomore Alyson Brant each went on 5-0 runs during the scoring explosion.
“I told them at halftime, I said, ‘When we come out here, you’ve got to put more intensity out there than what they do. If we let them come out with more intensity it’s going to be a long second half, too,’” Culpepper said.
Pace and Olivia Huhmann each had to play carefully in the second half after picking up three fouls apiece in the first. Though, the two forwards might have just been the recipients of some defensive woes further away from the net.
“So much of the game is you have your guards get your posts in foul trouble, because your guard doesn’t keep the girl in front of them and then she just runs straight into the post,” Culpepper said. “And so then we have two posts with three fouls each.”
With a 29-21 lead in hand, the Lady Cardinals found themselves on the other end of a survival attempt and began the fourth quarter up five.
Senior Nicole Bright capped a 7-0 Sweet Springs run to tie the game at 31 with 5:33 to play. Tipton stretched the lead to 35-31 before Kortnee Vaught, who tied Bright for a team-high 12 points, pulled the Lady Greyhounds back to within two.
And then Dowell took over.
“I got mad at her there in the huddle,” Culpepper said. “I told her, ‘Big players make big plays.’ I said, ‘You’re a big-time player. You’re going to make big-time plays for us right now down the stretch.’
“And she just kind of looked at me. Sometimes it’s just nice to give your player a nice little boost of confidence that, ‘Hey, I know you’ve got it. It’s you that’s got to do it.’”
And do it she did.
Dowell hit back to back 3-pointers — the second of which clanged off the rim, hit the backboard and rolled around the rim before falling to give Tipton an eight-point edge with 1:53 to play.
Having put the Lady Greyhounds in a hole, Dowell then buried them. She recorded three steals down the stretch and hit 8-of-10 free throws in the quarter to lead the Lady Cardinals to their first-ever sectional playoff win. Dowell finished with a game-high 22 points.
“She really focused and just locked down on trying to play (the Sweet Springs point guard’s) right hand and take it away from her,” Culpepper said.
The Lady Cardinals, coming off their third-ever district championship, will face Northeast: Cairo on Saturday at Salisbury High School. Tipoff is at 1:45 p.m.