It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Everything was going as planned.
An obvious advantage in Hickman’s speed and athleticism helped the Kewpies run to an 11-point lead after one quarter in their semifinal game against Liberty. It quickly increased to a 20-point lead with 2:04 left in the third quarter. Hickman had a habit of turning these kinds of runs into blowouts. After all, it’s won by an average of almost 26 points coming into Friday. Its victory, and its slot in the Missouri Class 5 state championship, seemed preordained.
That’s when Liberty made a change. Throughout the season, Hickman had used aggressive full-court pressure to force turnovers and fast-break baskets. Up until that point in Friday’s game, the Jays had struggled to adjust to the press. Liberty’s guard Kara Fleming had to deal with the Kewpies’ pressure the majority of the time.
“It was extremely hard,” said Fleming, who had six first-half turnovers as proof. “I felt alone out there. You don’t know where they are going to come from.”
The Jays decided to mimic Hickman’s scheme. Despite having a size advantage, the Jays began to run a full-court press against the faster Kewpies.
“We played their game on them,” Liberty coach Brad Oyler said.
Hickman seemed unprepared for the change in Liberty’s style. Over the next five minutes, Liberty went on a 12-0 run which included five Hickman turnovers. Suddenly, a blowout turned into a game.
Hickman had been in this situation before, though. Against Rock Bridge in the district championship game, the Kewpies blew a double-digit third-quarter lead, and even found themselves trailing the Bruins in the fourth quarter. The Kewpies’ star, junior Yvonne Anderson, refused to let them lose that game, and went on to score seven of Hickman’s next 12 points to help them pull away. On Friday, with the game now close, the Kewpies again looked to Anderson to take over.
But Anderson was sick. She missed practice on Thursday. Hickman coach Tonya Mirts said she had the flu. Coming into Friday, the team was unsure about Anderson’s status. While she started and scored 20 points, it was obvious that Anderson wasn’t the same player she usually is. She had trouble pulling away from slower players on fast breaks. She couldn’t fight through traffic as she drove the lane. She turned the ball over nine times to the Jays.
And she couldn’t hit a free throw.
Anderson went to the line seven times in the game. She only hit two. A 68 percent free-throw shooter coming into the game, the fatigue was obvious when Anderson went to the line. Her shots were consistently short. After the game, Anderson said that her illness had no effect on her game.
“The sickness didn’t affect me in any way,” Anderson said. “I just played bad.”
The Kewpies soon realized that they couldn’t rely on their star. The 12-point lead quickly dwindled into a three-point lead after Fleming hit a 3-pointer with 2:37 left. Hickman hadn’t made a field goal in the last nine minutes. Sophomore Chasity Prince, known for her three-point shot, got the ball beyond the arc after a Liberty turnover. She had time to set and shoot, and she made the shot. Now up by six with 1:37 left, Hickman seemed to breath a sigh of relief.
Mirts had seen it happen before.
In 2000, Hickman lost in overtime to Poplar Bluff at the Hearnes Center. An unbelievable 3-pointer by a Poplar Bluff player tied the game at the end of regulation, sending the game into overtime.
“I’ve seen the 3-pointer in the postseason one too many times,” Mirts said after Friday’s game.
After Prince’s3, the Jays immediately answered with a 3-pointer from 6-2 senior Heather Wansing.
Mirts and the Kewpies seemed to know the game was going to come down to one final play.
The poor free-throw shooting performance continued. Hickman had chances to put the game out of reach over the final minute, but it missed 2-of-3 free throws. With 19 seconds to go, Hickman was holding a precarious two-point lead. However, Liberty had all the momentum.
“It was like a movie,” Liberty’s Kara Fleming said after the game. “I felt like it was in slow motion, like everything was paused.”
The same moment is now ingrained in the minds of every Hickman coach, player and fan. With 12 seconds in the game, Liberty’s Kendra Carlyle got the ball in the corner beyond the arc. She hit the winning 3 right in front of Liberty’s bench.
Silence washed over Hickman’s fans and players. Stunned that its supremacy in Missouri high school basketball was in jeopardy, it tried to inbound the ball and rush up the court. Liberty kept the pressure, however, and Hickman’s Lauren Nolke lost her handle on the ball. It trickled out of bounds with just over a second left. After a foul, Liberty inbounded the ball to Fleming, She tossed it into the air, and the celebration began. The scoreboard read: Hickman 49, Liberty 50.
Hickman hadn’t lost in almost four months. As Liberty celebrated on the court, the Kewpies slowly walked from their bench, not knowing what to do. Their emotions ranged from utter confusion to devastation. Nolke, a senior, fought tears as the reality set in. It looked like the game was going to be one of her best. She had 11 first-half points, and was helping to take the pressure off the ill Anderson.
In the second half, however, Nolke attempted only two shots and didn’t score a point.
“I don’t know what happened,” Nolke said, her eyes red and puffy. “I just disappeared.”
Coming into Friday, the Kewpies seemed invincible. Instead, an unbelievable collapse left Hickman (28-2) with a season finale in the third-place game against Normandy (20-8) late Saturday night.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.