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Saxony Lutheran girls basketball team wins Holiday Classic
What a difference a year has made for the Saxony Lutheran girls basketball team.
More specifically, what a difference a group of talented, precocious freshmen has made for the Crusaders.
Before this season Saxony's only win at the Kelso Supply Holiday Classic had come via forfeit. The Crusaders lost all three of their 2011 tournament games by double figures.
Saxony broke through this year in a big way, winning the championship despite being seeded just fourth among the eight squads.
The Crusaders continued their resurgence with Saturday's thrilling 45-43 victory over second-seeded Central in the title contest at the Show Me Center.
"It feels amazing, especially since Saxony has never got to win it before," freshman Tess Daniel said.
Saxony, which improved to 8-1 after winning 11 games all last season, listed seven freshmen on its tournament roster. Four of those rookies started Saturday and all seven saw the court.
"They've really made a difference," senior Lauren Hecht said.
The freshmen combined for all but 11 of the Crusaders' points. Four of those points came in the final 18 frantic seconds after Central had grabbed a 43-41 lead.
Freshman Ali Galemmo, who did not start, hit a layup with 18 seconds remaining after a Central turnover to forge a 43-43 tie.
Galemmo then stole a pass at midcourt and was fouled going in for a layup with eight seconds left. She missed both free throws.
Central committed its third straight turnover in the final 30 seconds, the miscue coming just shy of midcourt.
Saxony inbounded and a shot was way off the mark. It bounded off the backboard -- and went right to Daniel underneath the basket.
Daniel, at 5-foot-4 the shortest Crusader, was fouled to prevent an easy put-back. Just 0.5 seconds remained.
"I was just being there to rebound it if it missed. I was just kind of there," Daniel said. "I knew we only had a couple of seconds left. I just kind of shot it up there."
Daniel said she had never been in a situation with a chance to win a game so late.
But she didn't flinch, calmly sinking both foul shots.
"I was nervous," Daniel said. "I just knew I had to ignore everyone, pretend like it was practice, not get overwhelmed."
Said Saxony coach Sam Sides: "We were fortunate. It was just a heads up play by Tess."
Central, having to inbound the ball from underneath its own basket, needed a miracle. It didn't come as Saxony intercepted a pass near midcourt to seal the landmark victory.
"Going from winning no games [in the tournament on the court] to winning the whole thing," said freshman Grace Mirly, expressing her satisfaction with a smile.
Central made things tough on the Crusaders despite trailing much of the way.
A tight first quarter that featured eight lead changes and two ties ended with Central ahead 13-12.
That was Central's last lead until late in the fourth quarter although, much like during the Tigers' semifinal comeback win over Jackson, they never let Saxony get too far ahead.
"I thought the game was more at their pace," Sides said. "We needed to go a little quicker, but they did a good job defensively. I thought Cape played excellent. They've got a really good team."
Central, trailing 28-23 at halftime, fell behind by seven points early in the third quarter.
The Tigers pulled within 36-33 at the end of three. They finally overtook the Crusaders with 1:50 remaining on a basket by senior Alaya Cooper-Johnson that made it 41-39.
Mirly's bucket with 1:24 left forged a 41-41 tie. Cooper-Johnson hit two free throws with 51 seconds remaining for Central's last lead at 43-41, setting the stage for the wild finish.
"It wasn't really the last play that beat us," said Central coach Sherri Shirrell, whose squad fell to 6-3. "There were a couple of possessions where we turned it over late. We could have valued possession of the ball a few more times.
"But Saxony has a great team. They've got a great future."
Cooper-Johnson scored a game-high 18 points. She led all tournament scorers with 64 points in the three contests.
Senior Bailey Kratochvil added 12 points for the Tigers. Cooper-Johnson and Kratochvil were joined on the all-tournament team by Central junior Kadie Orenstein. Shirrell had few complaints after the Tigers reached their first Holiday Classic final since 2002, especially since the Tigers have been playing without one of their top performers.
Senior forward Chelsea Vinson, who averaged 14,7 points and 8 rebounds per game a year ago, is out with a knee injury.
"We've had girls step up and play hard. I couldn't ask for more," Shirrell said.
Ditto for the Crusaders, who were led by Daniel and Mirly with 10 points apiece.
Mirly, who paced Saxony with 45 tournament points, was joined on the all-tourney squad by freshmen teammates Brianna Mueller -- who scored eight points Saturday -- and Raegan Wieser.
"It had a lot of ups and downs," Mirly said about Saturday's championship game. "I knew the team could pull it through, and we did."
While Saxony's freshman have received plenty of notoriety, Mirly and Sides both emphasized how crucial the Crusaders' three seniors -- Hecht, Natalie Mueller and Regan Obermann, who suffered a torn ACL in preseason practice -- have been to their strong start.
Hecht was Saxony's fourth-leading scorer against Central with seven points off the bench, while Mueller was the lone non-freshman starter.
"It's definitely our senior leaders," Mirly said. "They help us and show us the intensity we need to play with."
Sides said the seniors have willingly sacrificed more playing time for the good of the team.
"The older girls have kind of accepted it. They've been real mature about it," Sides said. "They've been great leaders. We wouldn't be where we are without them."
CENTRAL (43) -- Alayah Cooper-Johnson 18, Kelly Morton 4, Bailey Kratochvil 12, Kadie Orenstein 4, Kassidy Pannier 3, Katie Williams 2. FG: 12, FT: 15-20, F: 18. (3-pointers: Kratochvil 3, Pannier 1. Fouled out: none.)
SAXONY LUTHERAN (45) -- Abby Hadler 2, Grace Mirly 10, Ali Galemmo 2, Brianna Mueller 8, Natalie Mueller 2, Lauren Hecht 7, Tess Daniel 10, Ashlynn Collier 2, Raegan Wieser 2. FG: 17, FT: 11-19, F: 20. (3-pointers: none. Fouled out: none.)