MOUNTAIN GROVE – A strong fourth quarter propelled the Houston Lady Tigers into position for the program’s second-ever district championship.

HHS basketball

Houston’s Kaitlyn Root puts up a fourth-quarter jumper during the Lady Tigers’ 51-41 district semifinal win against Licking.

Led by sophomore Kaitlyn Root, top-seeded HHS pulled away from No. 4 Licking down the stretch Wednesday night for a 51-41 win in the semifinals of the Class 3 District 10 tournament.

Now it is onto the title game with the chance to meet two preseason goals – win 20 games and capture the district championship – and send coach Brent Kell into retirement as a champion. The Lady Tigers will face second-seeded Willow Springs – 56-37 winners against Ava in the other semifinal – at 5 p.m. Saturday in the title game.

Houston and Willow Springs met three times during the regular season in games that were decided by three, three and one point. The Lady Tigers (19-7) won two of those games.

“We know it will be a difficult game,” Kell said. “But you’re in the championship of districts, it should be a difficult game.

“The kids are excited. We didn’t care who we played.”

Junior Abby Casper had 15 points and Root scored 14 off the bench as the Lady Tigers reached the district finale for the third straight year. Sarah Kelley added eight.

Root scored on three straight possessions – highlighted by a conventional three-point play – during a key two-minute span in the fourth quarter as Houston began pulling way.

“Kaitlyn came in and did a great job in the fourth quarter,” Kell said.

Licking, which lost the first two meetings of the season by 24 and 13 points, stayed close for three quarters with a deliberately slow pace and timely perimeter shots. The Lady Wildcats (9-16) were down by just two points at the half and one point entering the fourth.

HHS basketball

Houston senior Shelby Cremer drives to the basket in the first half Thursday.

Houston was ahead 34-31 when Root hit a baseline jumper with 6:21 to go. After Licking scored, Kelley found Root on a high-low pass that she laid off the glass. Licking’s Dalrayn Feringa answered with a jumper, but Root again scored –– while being fouled –– on another pass from Kelley. The ensuing free throw made it 41-34 with 4:08 remaining.

While Licking double-teamed Kelley and held her well beneath her scoring average, Root got loose on the inside to help her team begin pulling away.

“She’s capable,” Kell said of Root, who had 10 points off the bench in the district opener. “She hurt her wrist, and I think it was a little bit worse than we thought it was. It shut her down from being able to catch the ball and having confidence. But we saw it tonight.”

The Lady Tigers went 9-12 at the free-throw line down the stretch to seal the win.

BOX SCORE

Licking 9 11 9 12 –– 41

Houston 11 11 8 21 –– 51

LICKING (41) –– Ashley Ingram 8. Melanie Curtis 2. McKenzie Cook 4. Taylor Dawson 3. Jordon Pursiful 17. Dalrayn Feringa 5. Lexi Hadix 2. FG 14. FT 8-10. F 17. (3-pointers: Pursiful 3, Dawson, Feringa. Fouled out: Feringa).

HOUSTON (51) –– Kaitlyn Root 14. Shelby Cremer 5. Abby Casper 15. Makayla Koch 2. Chloe Hunninghake 2. Sarah Kelley 8. Jaydin Ramsey 3. Alyssa Hayes 2. FG 18. FT 12-18. F 9. (3-pointers: Casper 2, Ramsey. Fouled out: none).

Saturday’s scores

First round

Houston 67, Mountain Grove 28

Licking 52, Forsyth 45

Willow Springs 67, Hollister 48

Ava 56, Liberty

Wednesday’s games

Semifinals

Houston 51, Licking 41

Willow Springs 56, Ava 37

Saturday’s game

(1) Houston vs. (2) Willow Springs, 5 p.m.

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