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Sparta KO'd by 28 turnovers, while Strafford still standing after 2-of-21 3-point shooting

SPARTA'S ASHLYNN ROLLER reaches for a loose ball against Strafford on Thursday.
SPARTA'S ASHLYNN ROLLER reaches for a loose ball against Strafford on Thursday.

Natalie Wilks’ message to Sparta fans who didn’t make the trip to Skyline last week was that the Lady Trojans’ woeful ball-handling Thursday was actually an improvement from their struggles against the Lady Tigers. 

Believe it or not.

Sparta had more turnovers than points in the first half of its Class 3 District 11 semifinal against Strafford and went on to suffer a 57-39 setback at the hands of the Lady Indians.

The Lady Trojans endured 18 turnovers in the first half and ended with 28 giveaways.

Skyline also exposed Sparta’s error-prone ball-handling while handing the Lady Trojans a 35-point loss in their regular-season finale.

“Strafford's pressure was really good. We knew it was going to be coming in,” Wilks said. “I feel we handled the pressure better this game than (the Skyline game). Skyline is way more active than Strafford. They’ve got faster girls and will be on you in .5 of a second.”

Coach Josh Loveland noted Sparta’s turnovers against Strafford were both forced and unforced.

“I told the girls before the game that, ‘Physically,  we are good enough to win, but whether you can mentally handle their pressure is what is going to win us the game or cost us the game,’” Loveland said. “We made a lot of mistakes. Even in our half-court (offense), we made a lot of turnovers that I felt like we didn’t have to make.”

While Strafford could rely on point guard Elsie Larson to control its offense, Sparta tried to counter with a point guard by committee. But no matter who handled the ball, miscues ensued.

“Some of us aren’t ball-handlers and we had to dribble the ball up the court,” Wilks said. ‘We tried to force it up the court and dribble as fast as we could when we really needed to slow down and play our game.”

“We don’t have anybody who is as good with the ball in their hands as (Larson) is,” Loveland said. “She can get downhill and get to the rim. We have to rely on moving without the basketball. We’re not great with the ball in our hands. We’re better as set-shooters and catch-and-score shooters. Against good teams this season, we struggled because we don’t have a true point guard. 

“We tried to keep some of their weaker defenders in the backcourt and walk the ball upcourt while being patient,” he added. “But they were more aggressive defensively and we were pretty soft, I felt like, offensively. That was the difference in the game.”

Strafford’s offense was sub-par, as well. The Lady Indians (20-8) started 0-for-15 on their 3-point shots and finished 2-of-21 behind the 3-point line.

At 60 points a game, this is Strafford’s highest scoring team in three years. But on this night Larson was the Lady Indians’ only effective source of offense. The freshman netted 23 points

“They missed a lot of shots,” Wilks said. “The Larson girl stepped up and kept doing what she does.”

“I would have liked our chances (beforehand) if I knew they would go 2-for-21 (on 3s),” Loveland said. “We knew they’re really good when Larson can get in the middle. We were willing to give up some 3s to try to keep her out of the middle. We played a lot of zone, trying to pack it in and force them to hit some shots.”

Loveland credited the Lady Indians for not letting their offense have a negative effect on their defense. 

“Whether they hit their shots or not, they guarded well all night in all five spots,” he said. “We kept trying to find mismatches where we could take advantage. Here and there we did, but not consistently enough.”

Sparta (22-6) made only one of its first 12 3-point shots and finished 4-of-20 beyond the arc.

With Wilks and Megan Brown finding holes in Strafford’s defense in the paint, the Lady Trojans were within four points, 28-24, of Strafford at the 3:55 mark of the third quarter.

Larson had an answer.

"She went on an 8-0 run by herself,” Loveland said.

Wilks led Sparta with a dozen points and Brown had 11.

Sparta’s seniors totaled 79 wins over their four seasons, but had no District championships. The last three seasons, the Lady Trojans fell to Strafford at Districts.

This winning era of Sparta basketball is eerily similar to Clever’s fortunes from 2015-2019. The Lady Jays’ seniors in 2019 also totaled 79 wins over four seasons, but were twice ousted by Strafford at Districts.

“I told the seniors they raised the standard of what Lady Trojan basketball is,” Loveland said. “Three years in a row we’ve been in a District with Strafford. I call it bad luck. We could win a lot Districts in the state. But this is the one we have to win. It’s all about the draw. We’re unfortunate that it fell this way. There are Class 4 and Class 5 Districts I’m confident we could go win. Even Strafford and Fair Grove, two great teams, only one of them is coming out of here.” 

“I’m proud of us,” Wilks said. “I’m sad that it’s over. I’m going to miss the girls a lot because I know we won’t be as close as we have been through the years. 

“I’m excited and ready to show Strafford what we’ve got in softball,” she added. 

Strafford 55, Sparta 39

SPARTA (39) — Holt 3 0-0 8, Brown 3 5-6 11, Wilks 5 1-3 12, B. Roller 1 0-0 3, Fulton 1 0-0 2, Youngmon 1 1-2 3.

STRAFFORD (55) — Jones 4 7-8 15, Humble 3 0-1 6, Ferking 2 0-0 4, Larson 9 3-5 23, Adney 2 3-6 7. 

Sparta    11  3  10 15 - 39 

Strafford 12 10 18 15 - 55

3-point goals - Holt 2, Larson 2, Wilks, B. Roller