Playing their third game in as many days, the College of the Ozarks Lady Bobcats were set to face the host, Grace College Lancers, in the final game of the 2021-22 season. One of the two teams would head into the off season on a winning note and have positive momentum to build on; the other would have to search for the positive as they concluded their season. While the game was in the consolation side of the NCCAA DI Women’s Basketball National Championship Tournament bracket, there was still plenty to play for. Ending the season with a win is something very few teams get to do, and the Lady Cats were determined to be one of those teams. Facing the home team, with the same goal in mind, it was sure to be a battle.
The opening frame started the tug of war as the Lancers jumped on the board first. Annie Noah quickly responded, and the race was on. It was clear early on that both teams wanted to play a fast pace and get up and down the floor. The Lady Cats held the early advantage with baskets from Michelle Gabani, Kayley Frank, Annie Noah, and Kyra Hardesty. With nearly four minutes gone, the Lady Cats led 11-7. The two teams traded baskets to a 15-15 tie with 1:23 left in the quarter. Baskets by Grace Steiger and Jordan Wersinger were answered by a Kenzie McMahon basket for Grace and the Lady Cats took a 19-17 lead into the first break.
Grace opened the scoring in the second quarter and tied the score at 19, with 9:28 showing on the clock. A Lady Cat turnover resulted in a Karlee Feldman basket and the Lancers took their first lead since the opening minutes. A pair of Annie Noah free throws and a Katie Mayes basket gave the lead back to the Lady Cats and the tug of war continued. The Lancers responded to regain the lead and the Lady Cats hit a short dry spell. Extending their lead to the biggest gap of the game, the Lancers went up 30-25 and the Lady Cats needed to answer. A Grace Steiger free throw cut the gap to four but a Lancer three expanded the deficit to 33-26. As concerns began to rise for the Lady Cats, Kyra Hardesty stepped up in the clutch again and drained a deep three. Jordan Wersinger and Blythe Benefield followed Hardesty’s lead and each hit a shot as the quarter came to a close. After the first two quarters of play, the score was knotted at 33.
If the first half was any indication, the final 20 minutes of this game was sure to be exciting. The Lancers lit up the scoreboard first in the third quarter and took a 37-33 lead, before the Lady Cats could score with 8:14 remaining. Michelle Gabani scored a traditional three-point play to cut the gap to 37-36 and a Kayley Frank two put the Lady Cats back on top. Ties and lead changes would continue, and the chess match began to intensify. Each challenge was answered with resistance and neither team could gain a consistent advantage. As time ran down in the third period, the Lady Cats held a slim one-point lead, 48-47.
After three quarters of play, the final 10 minutes of the season had arrived. Both teams would fight to the end and whoever handled the pressure best, would end the year with a win. Kayley Frank and Grace Steiger helped the Lady Cats maintain a three-point advantage until a Maddie Ryman three tied it 52-52, with 8:26 remaining in the game. Kayley Frank responded with a three and Katie Mayes followed with a two to build a five-point advantage for the Lady Cats. The pressure was now building on the Lancers. A Grace basket would cut the lead to 57-54 and the defense for both teams would take over. Neither team could find the bottom of the net for the next 3:46. With time running down on the season, tension began to grow. Kayley Frank broke the ice with a bucket at the 3:02 mark, then hit a free throw with 1:24 remaining to put the Lady Cats up 60-54. The Lady Cat defense had locked down and held the Lancers scoreless for the last 5:24. The Lady Cats were a small amount better during the stretch and the final 1:13 saw only a six-point gap on the scoreboard. A quick two by the Lancers cut the lead to 60-56 and it was pressure time for both teams. Like the day before, the game was likely to be won at the free throw line. Katie Mayes hit the first two from the charity stripe with :41 remaining on the clock. The Lady Cat defense continued lock down mode on the Lancers and Kyra Hardesty connected on the next two Lady Cat free throws, with :29 left to play. Now leading 64-58, the cold shooting continued for the Lancers and Kyra Hardesty iced the win with a single free throw with :22 left. The Lancers were unable to break the Lady Cat defense and time ran out giving the Lady Cats the 65-56 win.
The Lady Cats were led by Kayley Frank with 15 points and another Annie Noah double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Kyra Hardesty chipped in eight points and Michelle Gabani and Blythe Benefield each tacked on seven points. Jordan Wersinger and Katie Mayes each contributed six points and Grace Steiger added five in the win.
The win moved the Lady Cats to 21-11 on the season and capped off outstanding careers by the Lady Cat seniors. Following the game coach Mullis stated; "I'm so proud of our team for our accomplishments this season. Despite our share of challenges, our team persevered and stayed the course. Our seniors; Michelle Gabani, Kyra Hardesty, Grace Steiger, and student assistant coach April Earls, have been incredible. They are tremendous individuals who have led our team well, passing the torch to the next generation of Ozarks women's basketball players. I am grateful to each of them for the dignity in which they carry themselves daily. They are the epitome of what it means to wear OZARKS across our chest." The Lady Cats will have some big shoes to fill next season but the win to end the season will put them a step ahead in building for the future.