LEBANON — Walnut Grove suffered a rare loss on Thursday in the opening round of the xx tournament, falling to Class 4 state ranked, St. Joseph Benton, 54-42.
Benton, ranked second in Missouri Class 4, improved to 16-0 with the win, setting up a showdown between the Cardinals and No. 1 ranked Incarnate Word in the semifinals on Friday at Lebanon.
Walnut Grove head coach Rory Henry said the experience of playing one of the state’s premier teams will only help his young Lady Tiger squad going forward.
“I’m proud of our kids … we didn’t execute very well offensively, but holy crap, defensively they (Benton) are the best team we’ve seen,” Henry said. “Defensively, they may be even better than Strafford — they have great length, great size and they don’t give you anything easy and I don’t think we were prepared for that and that’s my fault.
“It’s hard for us to replicate anything like that in practice.”
Henry said Walnut Grove used a press to attempt a rally in the second half and had several chances throughout the game to cut into the Benton lead, but missed some shots and left some points at the free throw line as well.
“If we continue to press like that, there aren’t any teams in Class 1 that are even going to be close to (Benton),” Henry said. “Our press went leaps and bounds tonight — that is the best we’ve done it all year and I’m super proud.
“That is why we wanted to be in this tournament, to play a team of that caliber and to be able to compete and I thought we did.”
Up next, Walnut Grove will face Lebanon, who struggled against the state’s No. 1 ranked Class 4 team, Incarnate Word as IWA defeated the Yellowjackets on their home court, 78-33.
“When you look at it from our level in Class 1 you look at these teams and wonder if you’re going to be able to compete, but this is where you learn a lot about your team,” Henry said. “These are great losses for us, I’d rather lose to Benton by 10 than beat a Class 1 team by 50.
“We may go 0-3 (at Lebanon), but I feel it is going to benefit us in the postseason and make us a better team.”
Walnut Grove remains ranked No. 1 in Missouri Class 1 and is led by 2018 guard Bayley Harmon, who passed the 2,000 career points scored mark earlier this season. The team starts three freshmen in Faith Gilkey, Lauren Johnson and Makayla McVay and was without 2018 Grace Miller on Thursday.
Harman is leading the Tigers this season while playing through a torn ACL injury.
“That is amazing and the determination to play through that and do what she has done with a torn ACL is amazing,” Henry said.
The team starts three freshmen in Faith Gilkey, Lauren Johnson and Makayla McVay and the future is bright at Walnut Grove both in this year’s post season and the years to come.
“They have stepped right in and they don’t act like freshmen,” Henry said. “They’ve played a lot and they are very talented. For them to come over here, this is so great for them because of the physicality and speed of the game. For them to come over here is awesome.
“We have a bright future and it is exciting — we have kids on the bench that didn’t get to play (on Thursday) that I think are going to be good players too that are freshmen … we have a really good class here.”
The Tigers entered the Lebanon tournament sporting a 16-1 record with wins over Ozark, Rogersville, Mid-Buchanan, Fordland and several others. The Tigers only loss this season before Thursday came to Class 3 No. 1 ranked Strafford in the opening game of the season and the 26-point spread was closer than most have played the Indians this season.
“We’ve beefed our schedule up to try tp prepare for the postseason and I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Henry said.