Those who know Madi Braden best probably couldn’t imagine her ever telling a lie. She has the look of a Girl Scout, maybe even a Brownie, and fulfills an eager-to-please demeanor.

That said, on some nights it might be hard to believe her when she says shooting 3s isn’t her favorite part of playing basketball. After all, she’s Ozark’s 3-point queen. Rather, she insists her strongest passion lies at the other end of the court.

“Defense is my favorite thing about basketball,” Braden said. “I love defense. I’d much rather play defense than offense.”

No one had any reason not to believe Braden on Monday, not after the effort she gave defensively and especially not after the nightmarish first half offensively she and the Lady Tigers endured.

Ozark finally became Ozark in coach David Brewer’s estimation in the second half of its 59-45 Class 5 District 11 semifinal win over Nixa.

The Lady Tigers (19-6) survived one of their worst stretches of the season during a woeful first half. They fed more passes in the paint to Lady Eagles defenders than center Katie Mayes. Braden and fellow starters Anna Hitt and Olivia Hanks were all scoreless in the first half.

They were lucky style points didn’t count. Ozark managed to still be within one point of Nixa, 19-18, at halftime. 

“We felt fortunate to be down by one, after playing like we played,” Brewer said. “We certainly didn’t play well offensively. It seemed people were playing tight and not executing at all. It looked like we were discombobulated. 

“We had to settle down and play like we play,” he added. “We had options, continue to play tight and nervous and get a big fat ’L’ and the season would be over or be who we are and trust in what we’ve done all year. It’s easy to say that. They came out and did it. We became more like Ozark.”

The Lady Tigers didn’t face a bigger deficit due to a trio of 3s in the first half by Annie Scheer. It set her up for a game-high 18-point night.

She decided she didn’t have time to be nervous.

“We all came out timid and didn’t want to mess up,” Scheer said. “When it’s your senior year and you’re coming into Districts, you have that thought that it could be your last game ever. I knew if I wanted to play good basketball I had to shake off all my nerves and focus on the game.”

“She was our savior,” Brewer said. “It’s nice to see a senior do that. They were trying to take some other people away from us with their zone and Annie was huge.”

As Brewer inferred, the Lady Eagles (19-8) deserved credit defensively for Ozark’s troubles. 

“We definitely brought the energy tonight,” said Emily Edwards, who led Nixa with 16 points. "Our defense was better than the first time we played them (a 57-42 Ozark win).”

The Lady Eagles couldn’t help but feel at halftime their lead should have been bigger.

“There were little things everywhere we could have done better that would have made a big difference in our lead in that kind of game,” Edwards said. “Five points or so would have made a big difference. But we didn’t get it done.”

The Lady Tigers were optimistic at the break that things had to get better.

“We were playing our worst and were only down by one, so we knew if we played our game that we would pull it out,” Braden said. “In the second half, we executed and everything fell into place.”

Midway through the third quarter, Braden, Hitt and Hanks all finally scored their first points. It was part of an 18-point quarter, equalling the Lady Tigers’ output of the first half and Ozark led 36-28.

A key for Ozark defensively was Braden stopped Nixa playmaker Gabby Nielsen’s penetration. Nielsen had 10 points through three quarters, but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter.

Nielsen gave Braden all due praise.

“She’s always been a great defender in my eyes,” Nielsen said. “It’s a little intimidating going up against her because she’s super fast. Her speed is crazy and she can get down and swipe the ball. I feel that’s one of her specialties. She can get a hand on the ball anytime she wants. Props to her.”

“Gabby can slash really well,” Braden said. “She can get to the basket and she shoots well. Overall, she’s a very good offensive player. I had to work hard to keep her in front of me.”

“We talked just a hair at halftime about Nielsen and Edwards. They got loose a couple times,” Brewer added. “We couldn’t let that happen again. Madi is a superb ball-defender. When she has a duty like that, that’s right in her wheel-house.”

The Lady Tigers stayed in front by a comfortable margin by making 21-of-25 free throws in the fourth quarter. Scheer and Braden were both 9-of-10 shooting freebies.

Brewer wasn’t surprised by Nixa’s willingness to foul in the final stages.  

“I know what they were thinking. We clanked some against Republic,” he said, referring to missed free throws in the final minutes costing Ozark the COC championship. “They probably had that on film and saw how we shot under pressure. But our girls did a phenomenal job at the free-throw line tonight. It’s nice to see your kids step up in a big game and knock them down.”

Ozark moves into Thursday’s 6 p.m. championship game opposite Kickapoo (21-6). The Lady Chiefs whipped Branson 80-49 in the other semifinal.

NIXA (45) — Nielsen 2 6-6 10, Copeland 0 3-4 3, Edwards 7 1-4 16, Yantis 4 4-10 12, Thomason 2 0-0 4. Totals 15 14-23 45.

OZARK (59) — Hitt 2 0-2 4, Mayes 3 3-4 9, Boggs 1 0-0 3, Braden 3 9-10 16, Hanks 1 4-4 7, Scheer 3 9-10 18, Barber 1 0-1 2. Totals 14 25-31 59.

Nixa    10  9  9 17 - 45

Ozark 10  8 18 23 - 59

3-point goals – Scheer 3, Braden, Hanks, Boggs, Edwards. 

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