By winning three games in four days, the Houston High School girls basketball team kicked off the 2021-2022 season by earning the championship plaque at the annual Fordland Invitational Tournament.
But while the Lady Tigers cruised through the first two games, finishing the task was anything but easy, as third-seeded Houston and No. 4 Dora battled to overtime in the final contest before the Lady Tigers came away with a 76-70 victory.
Houston earned the win despite a colossal singular offensive performance in the game, as Dora senior guard Cassidy Hambleton used a combination of twisting, turning drives and deadly outside shooting to pour in a whopping 55 points.
“I guess you can’t beat this,” Vermillion said. “It’s really all about these girls. I can only do my best and tell them so much, but then it’s up to them – it’s who wants it more, and these girls wanted it more this week.”
The two teams exchanged blows in the first quarter that featured several lead changes and concluded with the Lady Falcons on top 16-15.
Houston then went on an 11-1 run to open the second period and led 26-17 when senior guard Hannah Dzurick sank a running shot from the lane with 5:03 to go before halftime. The Lady Tigers led 36-26 at the break, but the Dora came back in the second half and led 49-48 early in the fourth quarter after Hambleton nailed a 3-point shot with 6:36 remaining.
Both teams held leads down the stretch, and with the score tied at 65, Dora missed a wide-open layup with 1 second left and Houston was still alive.
The Lady Tigers took full advantage of the situation and went on a quick 6-0 run at the outset of the 4-minute overtime period, and led 71-65 when junior forward Olivia Crites snatched an offensive rebound, was fouled on the put-back attempt and made both free throws.
The Lady Falcons never recovered, as Houston sealed the deal at the charity stripe by sinking 7-of-8 foul shots in the extra session.
Dzurick went 4-4 from the line in overtime and led the Lady Tigers in scoring with a career-high 28 points, while Crites finished with 23 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Sophomore guard Angie Smith scored 11 points for Houston, while junior forward Karlee Curtis had 8.
Hambleton drilled seven 3-pointers in the contest, went 8-for-11 from the free throw line and scored 19 points in the fourth quarter. No other Dora player scored more than 4 points.
In pool play games leading up to the finale, the Lady Tigers hammered School of the Ozarks 73-21 in Tuesday’s tournament and season-opener and then routed second-seeded Conway squad 73-50 on Thursday night.
The deep and talented Conway squad held an 8-2 lead early in the first quarter in Thursday’s contest, but Houston responded with an 8-0 run and led 10-8 after a put-back shot by Smith with about 4 minutes to go in the period.
The Lady Tigers controlled the game from there, as the Lady Bears weren’t able to keep up with their opponents’ relentless up-tempo pace. Houston put together a 22-4 run after trailing in the first quarter, and held a commanding 30-14 advantage when Curtis snatched an offensive rebound and scored from down low with 4:52 remaining in the second quarter.
On the strength of a pair of 3-pointers by senior guard Jamison Cromer, the Lady Bears closed the gap to 33-22 at halftime. But the Lady Tigers ran away in the third quarter, pouring in 23 points while Conway managed only 8.
Houston increased the lead to 66-37 when Dzurick stole the ball on the defensive end and went the distance to the other end for a layup with 5:21 to go in the game. The Lady Bears continued to play hard and eventually fell by 22.
The Lady Tigers dominated the boards throughout the contest against the taller Conway group (that included two 6-1 players), and Houston frequently broke the Lady Bears’ full-court press with good ball handling and by keeping their heads up to find teammates in open space and successfully send them long passes.
Crites was a force inside on both ends of the floor, scoring a game-high 24 points while grabbing 14 rebounds and wreaking havoc on would-be Conway scorers in the key.
Junior guard Aliyah Walker scored 11 points for Houston, knocking down two triples and tossing in 9 points after the break. Curtis finished with 10 points, while Dzurick and Smith each had 9 and junior guard Makenzi Arthur came off the bench to add 8 (all in the second half).
Against School of the Ozarks, the Lady Tigers led 23-2 at the end of the third quarter and were never threatened.
Dzurick scored 20 points in the contest, while Crites had 19 (including 14 in the first half), Curtis had 10, Smith had 9 and Walker added 7.
Dora advanced to the final by beating host Fordland 52-40 on Tuesday and then downing top-seeded Chadwick 64-60 on Thursday.
The Lady Falcons were aware of the Lady Tigers’ hopes of using a speedy approach to gain an advantage.
“They tried to slow us down,” Vermillion said, “and it kind of stifled us at first. We threw in a couple of different plays that worked great for us, but honestly, the girls dug deep and kept their composure, and I think that’s what won us this game.”
Houston (3-0) will continue a busy stretch to begin the season by hosting country rival Licking Monday.
To view a photo gallery from the Lady Tigers’ game against Conway (with the option to purchase photos), click here.