Seven weeks. Forty-nine days. Something close to 1,176 hours.
That’s how long the Tipton Lady Cardinals have been waiting to avenge their 39-35 loss to Bishop LeBlond at Southwest Baptist University.
They'll get their chance nearly 30 away down Route 13 as the Lady Cards punched their ticket to the Class 2 State Championship by beating Norwood 55-30 Friday night at Hammons Student Center in Springfield.
The Golden Eagles confirmed the rematch from Jan. 21 of Class 2’s best programs by winning their own Final Four contest, defeating New Haven 45-23 in the game prior.
“I’m focused and ready to go,” Lady Cardinals head coach Jason Culpepper said. “We can go tip it up right now. Been waiting since January ever since we talked off the court at SBU.”
Despite its best efforts to slow the game down to a crawl, Norwood (23-6), outscored 4-0 in the first quarter, only delayed the inevitable: Tipton held the Lady Pirates to 1 of 12 attempts from the field to take a 24-6 lead going into halftime.
"I felt like our girls did a really good job defensively the entire game,” Culpepper said. “The first quarter offensively, we took some lower-percentage shots we can normally take throughout the game, but the style they wanted to play early on, we needed to slow it down and get high-percentage looks. Once we did that at the end of the first and in the second quarter, we really took control of the game. From there, they had to start playing our game.
“I thought they gave themselves their best chance to keep it close…if you can slow down the game and only give us 10 possessions early in the game, you’ll rush some shots or not quite get into a rhythm when you’re playing defense for two minutes, so I thought it was a good way to start the game for them, but it’s tough to score when you don’t shoot.”
With the exception of a 9-2 spurt in the third quarter, when Norwood shot, it didn’t go in enough, and the Lady Pirates didn’t get the second looks they’ve been accustomed to, especially compared to Tipton (29-1), who held a 15-8 advantage in offensive rebounding, or nearly one for every two misses.
“We’re used to getting it up the floor, but knew we might not be able to run with them and it got away from us a little bit,” Norwood head coach Wayne Jessen said. “We knew they took the ball real well to the basket and worked on our defensive footwork to eliminate drives, and for the most part didn’t do too bad on that, but we let them get some second and third shots, and we usually make our living off rebounds.”
Senior Briar Cox cleaned the offense glass nine times and finished with 13 boards to go with 14 points.
“I thought she played phenomenal,” Culpepper said. “She played like a grown man.”
On keying the early offense by finishing with 10 of those points before the interval, Cox added, “They were just playing really extended because they know all our guards can shoot, so they didn’t have much help, and really just let me score a lot.”
As that prompted Norwood to tinker its focus post-intermission, the Lady Cards’ guards heated up, with senior Myra Claas and sophomore Charlee Bailey knocking down back-to-back 3s. They ended up combining to make all nine of Tipton’s 3s, with Claas totalling a game-high 18 points and Bailey adding 14.
The defense of Bailey helped limit Norwood senior Katlynn Drake, who came in averaging 26.6 points, to just seven points on 2-of-13 field-goal attempts. Lady Pirates junior Loran Mooney ended 2 for 9 from the floor to lead her team with 11 points.
Now, Tipton returns to the title game after making it there in 2020 and coming one step away the following year.
“I think that throughout the last three times we’ve been here in the four years these seniors have been here, you always take away something,” Culpepper said. “You learn a routine, you figure out ways to keep the girls loose. But for the most part, the best team usually wins out, so for us, we just wanted to make sure we were the best team we could be whenever we came down here.”
Culpepper talked in the weeks following the loss to the Lady Pirates about using media coverage of Bishop LeBlond to keep his team hungry. When asked if he was still sharing as many articles with the team as he had been fresh off the loss, he responded, “[Myra] actually shared one today.”
“I did share one today in our group chat,” Claas said with a laugh.
“They’re always that motivational factor there,” Culpepper added. “Once you get to this point in the season and they see them advancing on the other side of the bracket, I don’t think I have to send them anything. That motivation’s there and they know who’s coming.”
Tipton and Bishop LeBlond tip-off for the Class 2 State Championship at 8 p.m. Saturday next door to the Hammons Center at Great Southern Bank Arena.
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