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Panthers fall to Thayer 51-40 in quarterfinal
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- An impressive season for the Meadow Heights girls basketball team ended one win short of the final four for the second consecutive year.
The Panthers fell into an early hole during Saturday's Class 2 quarterfinal against Thayer at Poplar Bluff High School.
Meadow Heights managed to climb all the way out briefly but could not sustain things as the Bobcats pulled away late for a 51-40 victory that sends them to their first final four.
"They're a good team, but we didn't play nearly as well as we should have," Meadow Heights coach Mitch Nanney said. "We felt prepared, but it seemed like we were pretty tentative."
That surprised Nanney because the Panthers were making their second straight quarterfinal appearance, although the program is only five years old.
"Especially after being here last year," Nanney said when asked if he expected the Panthers to come out more relaxed.
Thayer (27-3) put Meadow Heights (20-9) into an early hole by scoring eight of the game's first 10 points. The Bobcats built a 15-6 lead after one quarter thanks in part to seven turnovers by the Panthers.
"We all were like, we've been here before, but we came out scared to make a mistake," sophomore forward Whitney Welker said.
Fueled by standout senior guard Kaley Hebert, who knifed her 5-foot, 3-inch body around the Panthers seemingly at will on her way to eight first-quarter points, Thayer appeared on the verge of building a big margin.
The Bobcats went ahead 17-6 early in the second period. It was 17-8 when Hebert picked up her third foul less than two minutes into the quarter.
With Hebert on the bench the rest of the half, Meadow Heights outscored Thayer 12-3. A steal and layup by junior forward Heather Dietiker in the final seconds forged a 20-20 tie at the intermission.
"She [Hebert] is kind of what makes us go. She's really good," Thayer coach Cliff Hawkins said. "We kind of got out of sync without her and we had some other girls in foul trouble. But Meadow Heights has a good team and they did a good job."
Meadow Heights fell back behind 24-20 early in the third quarter but a 5-0 run -- capped when junior guard Hattie Cook made 1 of 2 free throws with 3 minutes, 40 seconds left in the period -- put the Panthers up 25-24 for their only lead of the game.
Thayer came right back as Hebert hit four straight free throws after being fouled twice on aggressive drives to the basket. That started an 8-0 run that put the Bobcats on top 32-25 and again put the Panthers in a hole.
"It seemed like the whole time we would dig ourselves a hole," Nanney said. "We'd fight out of it, then have a chance but didn't take advantage."
Hebert was whistled for her fourth foul late in the third quarter, which ended with Meadow Heights still within striking distance at 32-28.
Hawkins elected to keep Hebert on the bench at the start of the final period.
"She's foul prone anyway and I thought I'd keep her out of there for a while," Hawkins said. "We had some other girls step up."
The Bobcats were holding on to a 36-31 lead when Hebert came back in with 4:58 remaining.
It didn't take Hebert long to make her mark again as she twice drove for layups, the second putting the Bobcats up 42-31 with 3:30 left to match their biggest advantage to that point.
Meadow Heights got no closer than nine points the rest of the way as Thayer twice went up by 13 points.
"We didn't take the ball to the basket as much as we needed to," Nanney said. "It seemed like we were passing up some open looks we could have taken. We didn't pressure as much as we needed to."
The Panthers finished with 24 turnovers.
"I know we could have [played better]," Dietiker said. "I obviously don't know what was going through our minds."
Hebert, who never fouled out, led all scorers with 20 points.
"We are excited," said Hawkins, Thayer's longtime boys basketball coach who has taken that team to the final four. "It's a fun place to go."
Dietiker paced Meadow Heights with 11 points. Welker added 10 points, all coming in the first half.
"I think we played hard, but we didn't play our best the whole game," Welker said. "They [Thayer] have three really good guards and they're fast."
Despite the loss, Nanney knows the future remains bright for a young program that has made remarkable strides in just five years.
The Panthers made their first playoff appearance last season and won a tight sectional game before being blown out by Couch 54-24 in the quarterfinals.
This year the Panthers posted a lopsided sectional victory and were in the quarterfinal most of the way.
"We're pretty much sophomores and juniors," said Nanney, whose squad started no seniors. "We've got 41 wins the last two years. That's something to be proud of."
Welker and Dietiker, also key members of last year's club, said they are intent on making sure Meadow Heights finally gets over the quarterfinal hump next season.
"We're going to push as hard as we can this summer," Dietiker said.
Added Welker: "We were here last year. We were here this year. We basically have everybody back. We just have to take it next year."
THAYER (51) -- Emily Eckman 2, Kaley Hebert 20, Lacey Hawkins 3, Lauren Hargus 4, Samantha Oakes 9, Whitney Mills 9, Laken Martin 4. FG 18, FT 14-18, F 17. (3-pointers: Hawkins 1. Fouled out: none)
MEADOW HEIGHTS (40) -- Mica Morse 3, Hattie Cook 5, Gina Cureton 4, Heather Dietiker 11, Whitney Welker 10, Jillian Mills 5, Brooke Sander 2. FG 15, FT 8-14, F 18. (3-pointers: Morse 1, Cook 1. Fouled out: Cureton)