Lakers advance to the Elite 8

Camdenton accomplished something Wednesday night that has not happened for 39 years.

The Lakers took on Blue Springs (12-14) in Class 5 sectional action at State Fair Community College in Sedalia Wednesday night and surged past the Wildcats 56-49 to advance to the Elite 8 and be one win away from their first Final 4 since 1979.

Camdenton coach Staci Caffey was born around the same time the Lakers were playing in their last Final 4 and the team has recently started to make a habit of winning district titles around her birthday with two in the past four years.

Was it fate or destiny for the program to advance this far in the state tournament at this point in time? Caffey tends to think otherwise.

“It is definitely fate,” joked Caffey who reached her first Elite 8 as a head coach, “but at the same time I feel like it is these young ladies that are coming out on the court. Man, they are playing with a vengeance. They don’t want to lose and are playing to win every game.

“We might not be playing our best game, but bottom line is we are playing to win the ballgame instead of just not to lose.”

And that was certainly the case Wednesday night.

Camdenton was a little uncharacteristic at the start with 14 first half turnovers, but still led 22-21 at halftime thanks in part to senior forward Kylie Meier’s 11 first half points.

“We definitely came out a little nervous. Obviously this is the farthest that Camdenton has made it in 39 years so we were super pumped about that and kind of making history,” Meier said of the opportunity before them. “We knew that we just had to take care of business. We scouted a lot of their players and knew what they were going to do so we had to play our game and that is what we did in the second half.”

Blue Springs led by as many as four points midway through the third quarter- its largest lead of the night- but Camdenton simply refused to go away as it got hot behind the 3-point line.

The Wildcats opted to use 2-3 zone to try and take away any inside presence, but the Lakers found a way to penetrate the zone and kick out passes to open shooters who did not disappoint. Junior guard Jessica Watson was fouled on a 3-pointer but made all three free throws, senior guard Abbie Miller knocked down a 3-pointer and junior guard Darby Roam also hit two long-range bombs. Roam made one of those shots while getting fouled and completed a 4-point play to tie the game back up at 29.

“It was amazing. As soon as I hit it and they called the foul, everyone just got into the game and I feel like it really just got everyone going,” Roam said of her energy-sparking bucket.

Caffey said her team showed plenty of poise during that crucial stretch.

“We needed the inside game and we did not have the inside game in the first half to get the outside game,” she noted. “We went down and our girls were still real calm. They (Blue Springs) kind of took our inside game away and they knew who our shooters were, but we just did not attack the rim. I think once Natalie (Basham) got inside, she made a lot happen by attacking that rim and kicking it out. I think she had six or seven assists so kudos to her to keep going and keep playing that way.”

That spark was all Camdenton needed as the Lakers went from being tied at 29 to being up by nine after utilizing a 13-4 run between the third and fourth quarters. Camdenton went on to lead by as many as 12 and while the team found its stroke offensively, that run would not have been possible without a little effort on the defensive end as well.

The Lakers forced 19 total turnovers, including seven in the fourth quarter alone. Once again, Camdenton’s 2-2-1 full court press gave the opponent fits and did not allow Blue Springs to get very comfortable in its ability to run the offense.

“We are so intense as a team and just work really hard,” Roam said of her team’s defensive mindset. “Everybody is just always so up on the ball and our post (players) are jumping and knocking all the balls down. It is great.”

Caffey said once her team was able to anticipate more, things went a lot smoother.

“We wanted to make sure we kept the pressure on the ball- even if it was two girls (double team)- make them find that open man,” the coach said of the defensive strategy. “In the first half I felt like we were chasing the ball whereas in the second half we were definitely anticipating, got a lot more steals and got a lot more out of our defense.”

Of course, a successful night at the free throw line always adds to a winning formula and the Lakers excelled in that part of the equation. The team made its first 15 free throws, with six different players making two or more, and finished 23 of 27 for a healthy 85 percent to help preserve the lead.

“The girls just stepped up,” Caffey said of her team’s night at the charity stripe.

Meier led the Lakers with 19 points and collected eight rebounds, Roam finished with 11 points, senior forward Coley Rezabek put up eight and Miller knocked down seven.

While Caffey was pleased with a lot of what she saw on the floor, she also took some time to commend the efforts of the 5-foot-9 Meier who had no issue taking on a pair of Wildcats that measured at 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-2.

“Kylie did a great job. These last two postseason games for a district championship and tonight’s sectional game, she took it to the hole,” the coach pointed out. “She did not worry about the size, was aggressive and drove that left-hand baseline and knocked the shot down. She did a really good job on that.

“We got No. 42 (6-foot-2 Reagen Kanagawa) in foul trouble early and even though we did not do too much while she was out of the game, when she got back in Kylie just kind of lit a fire. She had a great game and we don’t win too many games with only two girls in double figures. That is what we did tonight with her and Darby.”

The journey continues for Camdenton (20-7) and it is a ride the Lakers do not want to end any time soon.

“It is super exciting. We had no idea we could make it this far, everyone has played super hard and we just gave it our all this whole time,” Meier said of her team’s run to the state quarterfinals. “We are super happy to be here and it is kind of mind-blowing honestly. We are super pumped and just proud to be here.”

Awaiting the Lakers in the Elite 8 is a Kickapoo team (26-3) that Camdenton is quite familiar with as the two sides battle each other each year in the Ozark Conference. The Lakers visited the Chiefs in late January and came up just short in an 82-75 overtime loss.

“They are a really good team. We have to have some vengeance on them because we took them into overtime, both teams played super hard games and we know what we have to do to fix it now,” Meier said of the next game. “We know those mistakes we made earlier on so we can learn from that and fix it.”

Roam said using a similar formula that has brought the Lakers postseason success would not be such a bad idea.

“I feel like we have a really good chance against them. They are a really solid team, but I feel like if we put our press on and start knocking down shots, it is hard to beat a team twice.”

Whatever takes place, the one sure thing seems to be that Camdenton will continue to enjoy the run and make the most of every remaining moment on the floor.

“Just the fact that I tell the girls, ‘Right now, you are in the Elite 8.’ That is just awesome and I just tell them let’s take every moment for what its worth, not overlook any of this and to play this opportunity with what we have. God has blessed these girls with a lot of talent and they are playing with it, so I love it.”

Camdenton and Kickapoo will go to battle on Saturday at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar with a trip to the Final 4 on the line. The action is scheduled to get underway at 6 p.m.