SMITHVILLE — The seniors for Smithville girls basketball spent the last four years trying to overcome the challenge of beating rival Kearney and winning a district championship.
The Warriors already took down the Bulldogs once this season, but they needed to duplicate that result to achieve something they’ve dreamed about since junior high.
It looked a little more like a nightmare as Smithville trailed most of the way through three and half quarters, but the Warriors ultimately stormed back late in the game to knock off the 3-time defending district champion Kearney with a 35-30 win Wednesday, March 3 at Smithville High School.
“It was not the way I had dreamed it and thought it would go, but they pulled it out,” Smithville head coach Trevor Mosby said.
The two teams remained nearly even through two quarters of action as the Bulldogs went into halftime with a 22-20 lead. Kearney would extend that advantage to 27-20 with just two minutes left in the third as Smithville fired away from 3-point range and saw very few shots go down.
With their shooters unable to break Kearney’s zone defense, Smithville senior guard Emma Chevalier took action by attacking the paint and drawing fouls to get to the free-throw line.
Chevalier, who finished with 19 points, hit two attempts from the charity stripe to get the Warriors on the board heading into the final minute of the third quarter.
Chevalier said it’s her goal to attack the basket and look for contact when the offense is having trouble clicking.
“I know that anytime I’m driving and I draw contact, I can sink the free throws,” she said.
Her points seemed to give the Warriors life as senior forward Christina Walsh pulled off a spin move to deliver a perfect hook shot for another score to close out the period.
Walsh, who finished with 8 points and seven rebounds, said she knew that Kearney’s zone would try to take her out of her game, but she decided to focus on sealing off her defender and posting hard until she could get an opening.
“I had to work other people open so I could eventually get open,” Walsh said.
Smithville turned the momentum into a relentless full-court press that discombobulated the Bulldogs during the final frame. Mosby said the shift was less about adjustments than the seniors showing leadership by picking up the energy on defense.
“Heading into the fourth quarter, the girls said ‘We’re not losing this,’” Mosby said. “We got some huge stops and turnovers when we needed them and were able to convert some of them into points.”
The Warriors took their first lead of the second half when Chevalier pulled down three straight offensive rebounds, two off her own misses, before finally getting fouled to head back to the line. She converted both attempts to make the score 28-27.
Chevalier said the team decided to push the ball up the court fast and not let off the gas.
“We knew we could get stops on defense, but we had to score really fast because Kearney’s defense was also really good tonight,” Chevalier said.
Smithville would force another turnover by deflecting the inbounds pass and senior guard Allie Andrews grabbed the ball for a steal. Chevalier took that as a chance to score again from the free-throw line, but this time on a pull-up jumper that proved to be a dagger to go up 33-27.
The Bulldogs kept fighting but the Warriors held on for a 35-30 victory.
Kearney head coach Troy Resler said they knew it would be a game of runs, which his Bulldogs came out on top for most of the game, but they had to be ready for Smithville’s run.
“I felt like for a period of time they got tough with us, amped up the pressure and created turnovers,” Resler said.
Just as the Bulldogs zone defense slowed down Walsh and forced other players like Chevalier to step up and make shots, the Warriors defense worked hard to prevent senior guard Kenzi Hoffman from getting settled in on offense.
Smithville used a diamond-and-one zone to limit Hoffman to zero points in the game, even though she found herself in the thick of the action with four rebounds and an assist. Hoffman entered the game averaging a team leading 8.6 points per game.
“They face-guarded me really hard, but that just brought opportunities for Shelby (Holst) and Jadyn (Barnes) to drive and get looks, get 3s,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said the third quarter was a battle but they let Smithville’s pressure get them in the fourth quarter.
“We couldn’t hit shots, couldn’t get to the rim,” Hoffman said. “That’s what lost it for us.”
Holst, who tied with Jadyn Barnes for a team-high 11 points, said it was clear early in the game that players other than Hoffman would need to step up on the offensive end of the floor.
“I could tell that she was struggling to get the ball and I just knew that someone had to step up because she’s normally the one,” Holst said.
Kearney ended its season with a 9-13 record after starting the season 0-6 during a brutal slate of games against some of the best teams in Missouri’s two biggest classes.
Holst said that last year’s senior class set a standard that this team felt like they had to follow.
“They were so good and so passionate,” Holst said. “That definitely left an impact on us.”
Hoffman echoed her sentiments, adding that the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic made the opportunity to play this year feel like a blessing.
“I’ve had a great career here at Kearney and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” she said. “This year especially, I know Shelby and I were just so grateful to even have a senior season. Everything was up in the air. It’s still a blessing, even though it didn’t go the way we wanted it.”
Hoffman and Holst, along with fellow seniors Everett Mack, Braelyn Rivera and Grace Schroeder, finished off four-year careers on teams that earned 86 wins, three straight district titles heading into this season and took third at state during their freshman seasons.
Those results for Kearney often came at the expense of Smithville, who played in the same district all but one of those seasons and joined the Bulldogs in the Suburban Blue conference in 2018.
Now the Warriors add the district title to their collection along with the conference title they earned through an undefeated conference slate.
This was the fifth district championship for Mosby as a head coach, but he said this one was special for him.
“I wanted this one more than anything because this group of girls, especially the seniors, have worked so hard,” Mosby said.
This district title also was the first one secured in the Warriors’ home gym.
Smithville rarely hosts district tournament games as those are usually held at larger host sites, but Missouri State High School Activities Association opted for home games for higher seeds as a measure related to the COVID-19 pandemic to limit the number of people at each facility.
Mosby said he thought about setting up a net-cutting ceremony for previous district championship teams, but it never ended up happening.
Walsh, who was sporting a piece of the net as a necklace, had a hard time finding the words to describe how she felt after the team punched its ticket to state sectionals.
“It hasn’t really set in yet. … It feels crazy,” Walsh said.
Chevalier said the senior group of Walsh, Andrews, McKenzie Robinson and herself talked about setting their sights on this goal since seventh grade.
She said all four remembered watching the Warriors win their third straight district title back in 2013 when they were in fourth grade, with those teams taking second, second and third at state during those years.
“As soon as I started playing Smithville basketball, I knew I wanted that to be us,” Chevalier said.
Mosby said that he’s normally had the mindset of limiting the celebration to the night of the win, but he told the girls that he wanted them to soak up the feeling until at least the start of practice the next day.
That’s when they would turn their attention to the next round.
Smithville (18-4) faced face Kirksville (13-10) 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 10 in the state sectionals at Kirksville Primary School gym. The final score was not available at Courier-Tribune press time.