Comeback Cats

Republic's Brooke Dutton guards a Smithville player during the Lady Tigers' thrilling 53-51 come-from-behind victory to win the program's third state championship. (Staff photo)

A regulation high school basketball game is 32 minutes long, and as the coaching adage goes, a team must compete until the final buzzer. The Republic Lady Tigers did just that throughout a remarkable run through the Class 4 state tournament, which culminated with the third state championship in school history after Republic’s thrilling 53-51 victory over Smithville on Mar. 10 at Mizzou Arena.

You could call the Lady Tigers the “Comeback Cats,” because Republic trailed at halftime of its Sectional, quarterfinal and semifinal games before staging second half rallies. In the state championship game, the Lady Tigers saved their rally for a more dramatic period—the final three minutes of the fourth quarter.

“This last month has been such a whirlwind,” said head coach Kris Flood, who was named the Girls Class 4 Coach of the Year by the MBCA. “These kids had one thing in mind, and that was to get to Columbia and finish the deal.”

Alice Heinzler with a leaner in the lane. (Staff Photo)

Trailing 12-11 at the end of the first quarter in the state championship game against Smithville, the defending state runner-up, Republic used a dominating 17-7 second quarter to open up a 28-19 lead at halftime. The Lady Tigers scored eight points off of turnovers in the second period, and hit 4-of-6 three–pointers in the first half, with three of the long-range bombs coming in the crucial second quarter.

Smithville began chipping away at the Republic lead in the third period, and cut the deficit to 38-33 heading to the final stanza. Republic’s junior point guard Alexis Botkin fouled out with 5:02 to play and the Lady Tigers clinging to a 42-40 lead. Junior Kayla Bartelsmeyer replaced Botkin in the lineup, and provided solid play down the stretch.

“Alex is a great point guard,” said junior Sarah Kreul, who was named MBCA Class 4 All-State. “I give props to Kayla Bartelsmeyer, though. She stepped up huge in the game that meant the most.”

The Lady Warriors tied the game at 42 just 10 seconds after Botkin fouled out. After a Republic basket, Smithville answered with a 6-0 run to take a 48-44 lead with 3:06 to play. Juniors Alice Heinzler, who had a game-high 16 points, and Kreul, who scored 12 points, provided the offense down the stretch, but it was a total team effort on the defensive end that got Republic extra offensive opportunities.

“I never saw my team losing,” said Heinzler, who also garnered All-State honors by the MBCA. “We were going to fight until the final horn went off. We believed in each other that we would get the job done.”

Following a Smithville turnover, Kreul hit a pair of free throws to pull Republic within two, but a Smithville free throw pushed the lead to 49-46 at the 2:19 mark. Heinzler hit a jumper to cut the lead back to one and Republic called timeout, trailing 49-48 with 1:21 remaining.

“Coach Flood just told us to calm down and play together,” said senior Brooke Dutton of Coach Flood’s instructions in the final minutes. “He had a lot of confidence in us.” Kreul recalls Coach Flood repeatedly saying, “It’s not over. It’s not over.” According to Heinzler, Coach Flood also told the team “to keep playing hard and maintain focus.”

Alexis Botkin shoots over a Smithville defender. (Staff Photo)

After a pair of Smithville free throws pushed the lead back to three in the final minute, Dutton grabbed a key offensive rebound off a Heinzler miss. Kreul then hit a lay-up off a nifty pass from senior Alexis Edwards to pull Republic within 51-50 with 38 seconds remaining. Heinzler grabbed a rebound on the other end and was fouled, and calmly sank both pressure-packed free throws to give Republic a 52-51 lead with 31 seconds left to play.

“I thought she (Heinzler) really stepped up and did what she needed to do,” said Dutton of Heinzler’s poise at the free throw line in the final seconds. “I was sure that she would hit her free throws. I had a lot of faith in her.”

Smithville ran the clock down, setting up a frantic final 12 seconds. Smithville rebounded its own missed lay-up, but Edwards blocked the ensuing shot attempt. It was Edwards’ fifth block of the game, and second in the final 1:29 of play. However, Smithville once again grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 10 seconds remaining.

Following the timeout, Kreul dove for a loose ball, tapping it to Heinzler, who secured the steal and was fouled. Heinzler dropped the first free throw, but missed the second. Smithville’s desperation shot at the buzzer was way off and the Lady Tigers were state champions with the come-from-behind 53-51 victory. It was the Lady Tigers’ third state championship after previous crowns in 1994 and 2004.

“We just won State!” recalled Botkin of her thoughts immediately following the final buzzer. “This is something I’ve been dreaming of for a while and it finally came true. We are a very competitive team and hate to lose, so we would do anything and everything for us to have the most points at the end of the game.”

Dutton echoed the “dream” sentiment. “I thought I was in a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that we had just won a state title! I still think it’s a little unreal. I’ve always dreamed of winning State, but I never thought it would come true.”

“We basically got beat in about every stat possible,” said Flood immediately following the state championship game. “The only stat we didn’t get beat in was the final score and that’s the most important stat. It was looking a little bleak there for a while. We hadn’t lost our confidence, but we definitely had lost our momentum.”

Sarah Kreul drives past a Smithville defender. (Staff Photo)

Republic rolled over Marshfield 66-36 in the District semifinals, and then staved off a Bolivar rally in the final minutes to post a 59-47 victory in the District title game. The Lady Tigers were held without a field goal over the final six minutes of the District title game, but converted 13-of-16 free throws to seal the victory.

The Lady Tigers led virtually wire-to-wire in the Sectional round, a 70-53 victory over Aurora, which advanced Republic to the state quarterfinals for the second consecutive season. In last year’s state quarterfinal game, the Lady Tigers let a five-point lead slip away in the final two minutes in a heartbreaking 41-38 loss to St. Francis Borgia.

This season, Republic went to the locker room at halftime trailing Helias 19-13. However, the “Comeback Cats” unleashed a 10-0 run in the third quarter and went to the fourth quarter with a 30-27 lead. After Helias climbed back on top by scoring the first four points of the quarter, the Lady Tigers responded with a 6-0 run and never trailed again. Republic advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 2004 with the 46-37 victory.

A familiar opponent awaited Republic in the state semifinals in Miller Career Academy, a team the Lady Tigers had defeated in the regular season the past two seasons. The Phoenix featured an athletic and physical lineup that loved to crash the boards.

MCA shot 52.4 percent from the field in the first half and led Republic 29-21 at halftime. It was time for the “Comeback Cats” to make another appearance. MCA scored the first basket just 16 seconds into the third quarter to up the lead to 10, but would not score another point until 2:33 remained in the period.

In the meantime, Republic steamrolled the Phoenix with an 18-0 blitzkrieg, with the Lady Tiger defense forcing five turnovers during the decisive run. By the end of the quarter, Republic had outscored MCA 22-7 in the period and led 43-36 going to the final stanza. MCA would get no closer than four points, as Republic advanced to the state championship game with the 56-49 victory. Heinzler led the Lady Tigers with 19 points, while Botkin added 16 points to go with her six assists and three steals. Edwards added another 10 points and seven rebounds.

Republic finished the season with a 23-8 record, with all of its losses coming to Class 5 teams. The Lady Tigers were forced to play a good portion of the season without Edwards, a returning All-State player, who was sidelined with the second major knee injury of her career.

One of the Lady Tigers’ losses, a 55-46 setback to Carthage on Feb. 2, served as a turning point for the Lady Tigers’ season. “We did not play well at all,” said Flood of the Carthage loss. “After that loss, we tried to get ourselves refocused.”

Flood addressed the team in a heart-to-heart “chat” following the game, and followed that up with an intense practice that will not be soon forgotten by the Lady Tigers. “That practice, we did not touch a ball,” said Heinzler. “We conditioned the whole time. My team responded ready to win. We had been frustrated, because knew we had not been playing to our full potential.”

“Coach Flood called it a ‘character building’ practice,” said Kreul. “Afterwards, I had so much ‘character,’ I received a Golden Globe nomination. But Coach knew what he was doing, because it worked. All we did was run, and run, and run, and run. I never want to be a part of another practice like that one—ever!”

The Lady Tigers responded by winning 11-of-12 games to close the season, including the state championship. “The practice was pretty rough, but afterwards everyone changed,” said Botkin. “All of a sudden, everything clicked and we could only go up from there.”

Alexis Edwards blocks a Smithville shot. (Staff Photo)

Republic’s schedule, which was loaded with larger Class 5 schools, as well as Class 4 powers, helped the team come state tournament time. “Our schedule helped tremendously by exposing us to good competition against Class 5 schools, and prepared us for the Class 4 state tournament,” said Heinzler.

“All of those losses were a learning experience,” said Botkin. “We were able to pick out our mistakes, so we could work on them in practice to get better.”

Like most teams, the Lady Tigers relied heavily upon its starters and key reserves, but this truly was a team effort. The primary starting lineup consisted of Botkin at the point and Heinzler at shooting guard in the backcourt, with Dutton, Kreul and Edwards in the frontcourt. Primary reserves included Bartelsmeyer, senior Taylor Wells, junior Lindsey Carlson, and sophomore Baylee Rayl. Seniors Mercedes Doty and Kailey Mathis, as well as freshmen Micah Mansker and Victoria Taylor, provided depth.

The Lady Tigers had plenty of support in Columbia, including a rabid and boisterous student section. It looked like a Halloween party had broken out in Mizzou Arena, as many of the Republic students in attendance were in full costume.

“I would just like to give a shout out to our fans,” said Kreul. “If you didn’t notice, our student section was the craziest, and our parents were right there with them the whole way. If it weren’t for their support, I don’t think we would have rallied back as hard as we did the last couple of games.”

With a state championship secured, the Lady Tigers can now reflect back on an outstanding year. “It was a great year with a great team and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of girls to share it with,” said Botkin.

“I could not have asked for a better year,” said Heinzler. “My team always had fun, but we knew the reason why we were there. All the hard work paid off.”

For Dutton, a senior who played her last game in a Lady Tiger uniform in the state title game, there is no better way for her career to end. “It’s great going out on top, but afterwards, I just wanted to keep playing,” she said. “I still can’t believe that we won State. I’m so proud of all of my teammates for working so hard for this. It really is the best thing to experience in high school. I’m so glad I got to be a part of the Republic Lady Tigers championship team.” 

Originally published in the March-April 2012 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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