St. Elizabeth girls top Tuscumbia for district title

ELDON, Mo. — It was a game fitting of two state-ranked teams, and like the saying goes, it was a shame one of them had to lose.

The St. Elizabeth Lady Hornets and Tuscumbia Lady Lions locked horns for the third time this season Friday night, with the latest coming in the title game of the Class 1 District 6 Tournament.

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Tony Hawley reports

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It was a game deserving of such a big stage, as the teams produced a white-knuckle thrill ride that ended with St. Elizabeth winning 65-63 in overtime.

“It was a wild ride, it was up and down,” St. Elizabeth coach Sheila Heckemeyer said. “We beat a very good team. Tuscumbia is unbelievable.”

And the margin of victory between St. Elizabeth, the eighth-ranked team in Class 1, and 10th-ranked Tuscumbia was the slimmest of margins. How slim? About an inch or two.

With .7 seconds left in overtime, Tuscumbia’s TaKayla Gunter caught the ball just inside halfcourt and lofted a 3-pointer that hit the front iron and fell off as the buzzer sounded.

“That girl can shoot the ball … and when she let it go, I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Heckemeyer said. “Then it hit the rim and I could finally breathe. It was crazy.”

Tuscumbia coach Kyle Middleton said his team was a short distance away from moving on to the state sectional round.

“Another inch and we win the game by one,” he said. “… We had a look at it and it just didn’t fall for us tonight.”

The game, which boasted six ties and nine lead changes, was dominated by Tuscumbia early. The Lady Lions raced out to a 9-2 lead, but the Lady Hornets got to within 11-8 by the end of the period.

St. Elizabeth then took its first lead at 19-17 with 3:44 left before halftime on a pair of free throws by Savannah Stiles. Heckemeyer said her team’s experience helped it avoid panicking after falling in the early hole.

“We’ve been here before, we know how to play in a big game,” she said. “My seniors have won (a district title) three out of four years, so they have a quiet confidence. They were loose and we play well when we’re loose.”

St. Elizabeth took a 25-20 lead into the locker room and then twice took its biggest lead of the night at seven points early in the third quarter.

But a three-point play by Gunter with :38.5 left in the third capped off a Tuscumbia comeback and the Lady Lions took a 38-37 lead.

However, St. Elizabeth took a 40-38 lead into the fourth quarter when Payton Holtmeyer drilled a 3 with :01 left in the third.

After a back-and-forth start to the fourth quarter, St. Elizabeth appeared to be in good shape when another 3 by Holtmeyer put the Lady Hornets ahead with :40 left.

“She’s been able to hit that 3 forever in practice, she’s lights-out,” Heckemeyer said. “I keep telling her, ‘You’ve got to shoot in the game. If you’re open, shoot it.’ … She’s had that all along.”

Tuscumbia turned the ball over right after that, making things look dire. It looked even worse after three free throws sandwiched around another miss for the Lady Lions left them behind with 54-50 with :12.1 left.

But Gunter scored a layup with :04.4 remaining and after a timeout, Tempary Gunter stole the inbounds pass and put home a layup with :01 left to tie it at 54 and force overtime.

“Tempary has made big plays all year,” Middleton said. “She looked at me and I said, ‘You’ve got to make a big play.’ After she did, I looked back and her and I said, ‘That’s what big players do.’ That’s what we expect of her.”

The teams traded scores for most of overtime, with the Lady Hornets hitting just enough free throws down the stretch to give them the lead, setting up the oh-so-close 3 at the end.

“I can’t be more proud of them,” Middleton said of his players. “The way they fought back to send it to overtime … it’s just tough.”

TaKayla Gunter racked up 18 points to pace Tuscumbia, which ends its season with a record of 23-5. Tristen Patterson added 13, Summer Rush had 11 and Kendra Vaughan and Tempary Gunter had 10 each. Tempary Gunter also pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds.

“Sheila and I talk about it all the time — we love playing each other, but we hate that somebody’s got to lose because we’re both one of the better teams in the state,” Middleton said. “It stinks that we’re out now.”

Stiles led St. Elizabeth (20-7) with 18 points, while Allie Heckmeyer had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Holtmeyer added 12 points for St. Elizabeth, which will play defending state champions Walnut Grove (24-4) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.

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