CABOOL –– In the locker room before his team’s first district game, Houston coach Brent Kell wrote ‘0-0’ on the board. The numbers represented the Lady Tigers’ new start in the postseason after struggling through the regular season.

“It doesn’t matter what you did in your regular season,” Kell said. “This is an entirely new season, and the girls have played that way.”

After upsetting third-ranked Alton in the opener, HHS continued its unexpected run through the Class 3 District 10 tournament Wednesday night. Playing another team that pulled off a first-round upset, the sixth-seeded Lady Tigers pulled away from No. 7 Willow Springs with a strong third quarter and won 53-42.

The victory propelled Houston (11-15) into the championship game for the first time since 2007. The Lady Tigers won their first and only title under Kell in 2004.

HHS will need its biggest upset yet to knock off state-ranked and top-seeded Licking in Friday’s 6 p.m. championship game. The Lady Wildcats are 23-2 after beating Hartville 65-45 in Wednesday’s other semifinal.

“We’re not going to be scared, I know that,” Kell said. “We’re going to take it right at them and see what happens.”

Sarah Kelly scored 14 points and Kylee Elmore added 10 for the Lady Tigers, who led 30-23 at the break and extended the advantage to as many as 16 points. Shelby Cremer had five of the team’s eight steals.

After shooting a season-best 66.7 percent from the field in the opening round, the Lady Tigers cooled off. They connected on 40.5 percent of their attempts against Willow Springs and were 1-for-6 from downtown.

But by rotating between 2-3 and 1-3-1 halfcourt defenses and applying fullcourt pressure at times, HHS held the Lady Bears to 37.5 percent shooting. Willow Springs was just 3-for-11 at the foul line.

The game was close early. There were three ties and five lead changes before the Lady Tigers began pulling away in the second quarter. Elmore connected from downtown to put HHS ahead by four and the advantage stretched to seven on another Elmore basket with 1:07 left in the half.

The gap widened in the opening moments of the third quarter as the Lady Tigers used an 11-0 run to take a commanding 16-point lead. Sydney Cremer, Abby Casper and Kelley each had two baskets during the spurt.

“Great effort by a lot of girls,” Kell said. “That’s what we have been preaching for a long time –– that we’ve got to have more girls stepping up. In the districts, they’re doing that.”

Kelley and Elmore were forced to the bench with four fouls apiece late in the third quarter. But the Lady Tigers –– with Makayla Koch and Kaylea Preheim providing minutes off the bench –– were able to maintain a double-digit lead until they returned.

BOX SCORE

Houston        14      16      14      9      –      53   
Willow Springs       13    10    5    14      –    42 

HOUSTON (53) – Kylee Elmore 10. Shelby Cremer 6. Abby Casper 8. Sydney Cremer 9. Makayla Koch 6. Sarah Kelley 14. FG 17. FT 18-28. F 15. (3-pointers: Elmore. Fouled out: none).

WILLOW SPRINGS (42) – Alana Biehl 3. Kyla Hutsell 12. Alexis Brooks 4. Beth Sherbo 16. Devin Perkins 2. Shilo Letterman 4. FG 18. FT 3-11. F 19. (3-pointers: Hutsell 2, Biehl. Fouled out: none).

Saturday’s scores

Licking 71, Cabool 35

Hartville 62, Liberty 52

Willow Springs 60, Mountain Grove 57

Houston 65, Alton 51

Wednesday’s scores

Licking 65, Hartville 45

Houston 53, Willow Springs 42

Friday’s championship

Houston vs. Licking, 6 p.m.

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