In the first quarter of their Class 6 quarterfinal game against Jackson, the Eureka girls basketball team was practically sleepwalking on offense.
Wildcat head coach James Alsup shouted at his players to move the ball around. But the Indians imposed their will with strong zone defense and capitalized at the other end as four different players nailed 3-point shots to build a 14-5 lead after one quarter.
Alsup pulled the plug on his starters for a wholesale lineup change midway through the period.
“We were holding it and keeping it on the same side of the floor,” Alsup said. “We were very tentative, which isn’t us. They were really aggressive in their 2-3 zone. They were jumping passing lanes, and if we held it too long in the paint, they tipped it away from Zoe (Cuneio). We needed to move the ball more and quicker.”
Junior forward Kori Robinson gave the Wildcats solid minutes off the bench with a pair of rebounds. Then the starters returned and promptly went on a 10-0 run, outscoring Jackson 15-3 in the second quarter to lead 20-17 at halftime.
The third quarter was mostly breakeven, ending at 35-29, but Eureka took off in the final period, draining 10 of 11 free throw attempts and thwarting the Jackson offense at every turn to pull away for a 54-38 victory on March 11 at Jefferson College in Hillsboro.
It’s the fourth time in team history the Wildcats have qualified for the final four, and the first trip since 2014 when they finished fourth in Class 5. Alsup guided Eureka to the Class 4A state title in 2000.
The Wildcats (23-7) play Columbia Rock Bridge (also 23-7) in the semifinals of the Show Me Showdown at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield at 6 p.m. Friday. Undefeated Incarnate Word Academy (28-0) faces Raytown (24-2) in the other semifinal at 8 p.m. The seemingly invincible Red Knights have won 98 in a row and own a record 12 state championships, including the last two in Class 6.
The championship will tip off at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Junior guard Bailey Boulay, Eureka’s leading scorer for the season (12.2 points per game), topped all scorers with 15 points, 12 in the second half. Sophomore guard Camryn Alsdorf paced Jackson with 11 points.
“From our first practice, we wanted to make it to the final four,” Boulay said. “Our mindset was to get there and it’s a reality now.”
Alsup was as hungry for the victory as his team.
“I’ve been there. I wanted this for these kids,” he said. “They deserved a final four. And they earned it.”
The second-quarter turnaround started when senior Megan McCune scored a field goal on a drive into the paint. Boulay drained a trey and senior guard Natalie Harty (13 points) made back-to-back baskets, including a 3-pointer. The 10-0 run in a little over three minutes turned a bleak start into bright hope.
“This was similar to the Parkway South game (a 63-43 District 2 win) where we got off to a slow start and built in the second half,”Alsup said.
In the final two minutes of the half, Eureka hauled down two defensive rebounds, Boulay drew a charging foul and freshman guard Mia Cuneio (10 points) hit from downtown to put the Wildcats ahead at the break.
Two 3-point baskets by Harty and conventional field goals by Zoe Cuneio and junior guard Maison Smith boosted Eureka’s lead to 30-19 midway through the third. The Indians couldn’t buy a shot close to the basket, with many shots going from the rim to Wildcat hands.
Later in the third, Jackson seized some momentum as senior guard Maci Wendel and sophomore guard Camryn Alsdorf made 3s, and junior forward Nadia Wasilewski and junior guard Holland Guilliams made baskets to pull the Indians to within three at 32-29 with under a minute to go in the quarter. But Boulay drove right to the rim for two points to end the quarter and cut off Jackson’s surge.
A three-year starter, Boulay found she could pounce on Jackson’s inbound passing from their own end line in the second half and grab turnovers that led to points.
“Throughout the first half, I was eyeing the girl (the inbounds passer) was passing to, so over time I started picking it off,” Boulay said.
“That’s our Bailey,” Alsup said. “When we need something done, no matter what it is, she can make it happen.”
Boulay picked up her third foul at the start of the fourth and senior guard Kaitlyn Waller made two free throws for Jackson to cut Eureka’s lead to 34-31. Then Boulay stole an inbound pass, scored, grabbed a defensive rebound and assisted on a Smith basket. Two free throws by Harty with 6:15 left made it 40-33 and Eureka outscored the Indians 14-5 from there, exactly the opposite of the first quarter.
“Tonight, we played loose and had some fun,” Alsup said. “We didn’t in the first quarter, (but) we sure did in the fourth.”